During the 1960’s my husband Alf was assigned to Lisbon to head the Embassy’s political section after he had closed down the American embassy in Phnom Penh, followed by a year as a fellow at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. A few weeks after arriving in the Portuguese capital, we settled into a terraced, country-style, split-level villa, with a typical barrel-tiled roof, in upper Restelo, a hilly, fashionable and close-in suburb (the President of Portugal lived almost across the street). We had been there about a year when a Saturday evening in November 1967 almost turned into a night of horror for us.
Portuguese families enjoyed getting together on Saturdays. Like Americans in the South, many Portuguese relish keeping in touch with their seemingly countless relatives. When the work week is over, they enjoy nothing better than a good gabfest with as many members of the family as can be rounded up. The poorer Portuguese in particular, who remain all their lives closely tied in spirit if not in fact to their “terra” (hometown), find their main recreation in getting together. In a small, homogeneous society with a strong traditionalist and generally conservative outlook, these ties play a powerful role. In fact, on that same Saturday evening, I heard later, in a small village not far from the capital, one man happened to be with twenty-seven family members.
When the night was over, he was the sole survivor.
That Saturday morning broke gray and dismal. Looking out the bedroom window early that day, I saw dark gray layered clouds scudding over the red-tiled roofs of houses below ours. At the bottom of the hill, the Tagus River was a sullen pewter gray. Unusually, the weather did not improve by breakfast time or even by noon. After a year’s residence in Lisbon with its Atlantic maritime climate, we learned how changeable its weather could be. In half a day or less, it might range from heavy rain to full sun.
The city, a picturesque welter of tile-roofed buildings full of eighteenth-century charm, follows along the Tagus into an estuary feeding into the Atlantic. One of the capital’s great charms is the fact that from almost anywhere in town, water can be viewed by glimpses of river, ocean or both. Watch a ship approaching the river docks or enjoy a vista encompassing a distant sandbank, a lighthouse rounding out the view at the far end, and then the ruffled ocean. Clouds and mist roll in unexpectedly from the sea. It’s often windy. In winter, piercing gusts from the Atlantic can chill uncovered ears. We needed and used heavy woolen Hudson Bay blankets on our beds. (A tiny coal-fired furnace – usually out of order and hidden away in the depths of the basement – provided the villa’s only heating.) In summer, the fine blowing sand stings when wind blasts it off the surface of the beaches and dashes it against unwary faces.
That day, the early morning weather meant little as to how the rest of the day would turn out. It might improve at any minute. There was no indication of what was to occur that night.
It rained most of the day. In the morning, I drove to market to buy the usual weekend supplies — lettuce, a couple of chickens, some fruit. After lunch, most of the family napped. It was a good day for naps. I only noticed a leak in the entry hall when the phone rang in the afternoon and I answered it. While I was talking, a cold drip fell on my head. Looking up, I noticed a crack in the ceiling. It had never shown up before. “A lot of water must have fallen this morning,” I told Alf. “It’s even got the roof leaking.” We put a bucket under it and forgot it. Monday would be time enough to have the roof looked at and repaired. Our one phone was unreliable at best and we probably wouldn’t be able to reach anyone over the weekend anyway to come and inspect the leak. Answering the phone reminded me of a recent amusing phone call. I had answered the phone with, “Sto,” the usual Portuguese greeting, meaning “I’m here.” “Sta?” the correct reply came back, “Are you there?” After exchanging a few more Sto’s and Sta’s, I thought I recognized an American overtone to the voice. “Howard,” I asked, “is that you?” It was a newly arrived Embassy administrative officer, trying to use customary Portuguese phone etiquette, when speaking, he assumed, to a domestic at our house.
It was still raining after dinner; nevertheless, we had tickets and still planned to go to a special evening movie show in town. Opening the front door to a loud drumming noise outside, I looked out on sheets of water pouring down. The garden was saturated. The tiles of the entrance stoop were forming ponds of water. “Wow, it’s really coming down,” my daughter Susan said, peering out around me. “It looks like that day the monsoon flooded the streets in Phnom Penh — remember?”
I hadn’t forgotten the day. Monsoon rains had flooded the city street in front of our house in the Cambodian capital to a depth of about nine inches. Both of our children, barefoot, had been allowed to ride their bicycles, splashing through the waters of our block until the water receded, about half an hour later. They had enjoyed it much more than I had liked a similar happening the year before while driving our station wagon in downtown Phnom Penh. During a sudden monsoon downpour, my brakes flooded, stopped working, and I glided along helplessly, almost unable to steer. Luckily, there was little traffic and I made it home without incident. Our ambassador was not amused that evening when I told him about it at a party. He probably pictured how my hurtling car might have hurled Cambodian pedestrians in all directions, knocking them down like nine pins.
Evidently, this rain was not about to stop. But using our largest umbrella, we got into the car to go to the movie. Downtown was about a fifteen-minute drive away. Other cars were climbing the sloping highway to town, all moving slowly. Rain poured down the windshield in blinding torrents. Through the cascades, the road ahead could be seen shining like a wide black silk ribbon.
Lisbon movie theaters usually filled up on Saturday nights. Couples and six or eight family members might attend a show together, dressed in their best. But the theater was only half full that night. As the lights dimmed, a couple entered our row. Water dripped from her fur coat and ran under the seat in front. Her wrap could have been wrung out like a wet mop. The smell of wet fur filled the air until after awhile it ceased to be noticeable.
Leaving the theater about midnight, we found a crowd clustered on the wet marble steps outside, waiting for cars or taxis. Clutching a huge golf umbrella, a hearty and genial doorman ferried customers across the sidewalks to their vehicles. The rain fell harder than ever. Wide streams of water coursed down both sides of the broad avenue.
Our car was parked on a side street. Splashing to the car and getting in, we drove toward the river to return home along the Marginal, the main highway edging the coast. But rounding a curve, we saw the blackish glint of deep water a scant block ahead, flooding the road. Immersed up to its fenders, a bus stood dead in the water, and a few yards away, an empty taxi was slewed sideways. “If this part of the road’s flooded, the rest may be even worse,” Alf said. Turning the car around, he headed back through town in order to reach the upper highway. Getting through the empty city was easy, but a scattering of abandoned cars dotted the steep roadway further on.
Before reaching the hill on which our villa stood, we gingerly forded several broad pools in the road. But we made it through safely and headed toward the bottom of a nearby hill to pick Susan up from a teenage supper dance at an American embassy friend’s house.
Half a block from the house, we stopped where two or three other cars were parked. The rain had abruptly halted a short time before. But the headlights lit up a muddy, rushing stream that completely covered the road ahead. Our friend’s house was on the other side, not far from the riverbank. “It’s already gone down a lot,” another parent called over to us. Leaving the headlights on, he got out of his car and stood by it barefoot, with trousers rolled high and an emergency lantern in his hand. “I think we can make it now.” Pulling off his shoes and rolling up his pants, Alf waded across with him. The water rose above their knees but no higher. I hoped no live wires lay hidden in the rushing stream.
The two men disappeared beyond the headlights’ reach. Ten minutes later, they reappeared, each carrying a preteen, others walking slowly beside them. The youngsters were soaked, excited and talkative. After dropping several off at their houses not far from ours, we ourselves got home at about two a.m. The cuckoo clock we bought years before in Berlin had fallen off the wall in the front hall and lay shattered on the tile floor. It had never fallen before. Perhaps wind gusts against the outside wall or even a minor earth tremor had knocked it down. We never even thought of looking into the bucket under the ceiling leak before rushing upstairs to get out of our wet clothes. Each of us took blessedly hot showers before going to bed (the hot water system generally was almost as unreliable as the phone and the furnace).
The next morning, we began hearing reports of how bad the flood had been. It was headlined in the local newspapers as a disaster of an extent unknown in Portugal since the terrible earthquake of 1755 had leveled the city (it had to be almost totally rebuilt; hence the uniformly eighteenth-century charm of most of its buildings). Water had swept over many of the low-lying suburbs around Lisbon and even swept away villages at the mouth of the Tagus — most of those built on flat ground, actually.
The real-life ending for our family and friends could have been very different. Minutes after we picked up the younger children, the entire group of teens had left off dancing in the tiled basement and filed up the narrow set of stairs to the first-floor dining room for a midnight buffet. Almost as soon as the last teen was upstairs, a loud roaring was heard from below. The lights went out. Peering by flashlight into the basement, the parent hosts were horrified to see water engulfing the stairs and surging rapidly up the steps. A few minutes earlier, and the river would have swallowed up the youngsters. Water had burst through the only basement door leading outside to what was normally a grassy slope, now flooded with muddy water.
The water never quite made it to the first floor, but for weeks afterward, the hostess told me, she had nightmares at the thought of what could have happened that night. Almost every embassy teen and many younger friends might have drowned. The mud that covered everything in the basement — appliances, luggage, rugs, bicycles — took days to clean up. The odor never went away. Houses and shops closest to the river were damaged, flooded out or swept away outright, a number of local people living at the bottom of our hill among others were missing, presumably drowned; and two huge, enormously heavy metal industrial rollers weighing thousands of pounds were torn from a factory site and borne a mile or two downstream by the flood.
It was the worst flood our Portuguese friends could remember — the worst natural disaster, indeed, since 1755. And it was our first such experience, etching that November Saturday night in 1967 forever in our memories.
Bobbie Bergesen, who has written a number of reminiscences for American Diplomacy, was a U.S. Foreign Service spouse until the retirement in 1984 of her husband, Foreign Service officer Alf E. Bergesen. Four years after his death in 1993, Bobbie Bergesen remarried, but continues to use the surname on this article in her writing activities. She now lives in Florida.
Other articles by Bobbie Bergesen can be found here.