Sorry about the silence. I’ve been working hard in Portugal and working hard here.

Damian in borrowed shades
Stevie Wonder says I look just like him in these shades

My exact ethnic background isn’t immediately obvious from my appearance. Most Sierra Leoneans would call me “white”; most Brits wouldn’t. To a large fraction of the people on this planet I just look vaguely “foreign”. I’ve been told that I look Spanish, Indian, Eastern European(!), Arabic, and (black) South African. During the part of last summer when I spent enough time away from a computer to get brown, a Nigerian in Brighton thought I was Nigerian, which is true in the sense that I was born there, but not in any other.

When I leave the UK for somewhere warmer, other (usually northern European) visitors assume that I am a local. Perhaps this is because I don’t turn pink or orange in the sun. On this, my second visit to Portugal in the past ten years, I wasn’t surprised when two Brits in Lisbon airport complimented me on my excellent English, but I was surprised that, on three occasions locals assumed that I was local, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. For example, as I greeted a Portuguese academic in English at a meeting of people from all over the planet, she explained in Portuguese that it was okay: there was no need for me to speak English to her because she was Portuguese as well. She said this despite my wearing a badge with my Irish/English-sounding name on it.

After the day when I first turned up for work in a science lab and other members of my group—who were overwhelmingly physicians doing science—laughed at my wearing a tie, I spent my “career” almost exclusively in smart casual. Including most job interviews, the only working occasions I used to dress formally for were those at which I had to address non-scientists. Despite this, and the delightful warm weather, I was suited and booted throughout my paid hours in Portugal. The unfamiliar get-up caused me problems. I had to struggle with cufflinks. I had to get and keep proper shirts crisp. When I asked at the hotel desk for an ironing board they sent a maid up to my room with one. They also, helpfully, sent me an iron. This was much better and bigger than the tiny one I had brought with me so I used it.

The maid should have said:

Yes, this ironing board is so old and grubby it looks like it was constructed from a wino’s mattress, but this iron is brand spanking new. Because of this, its base is still coated in a layer of protective plastic.

It is vital that you remove this plastic first. If you do not, and are foolish enough to fill the iron with water, and you then turn it on to its highest setting in order to press one of only two white cotton shirts you have brought with you then you will be puzzled by the apparent ineffectiveness of the appliance.

After wasting some time smearing your shirt with the coated element, you will turn it over to find that the plastic has become molten and that it is stretched over the holes through which water vapour would otherwise percolate, thereby forming deadly superheated steam bubbles.

In a panic, you will yank the plug out of the wall and race to your bathroom, where you will plunge the iron under running water, temporarily blinding yourself, before spending the rest of the morning peeling puckered blobs of oily gunk from stained stainless steel.

But she just pointed at the hole on top of the iron and repeated:

Water! Water!

until I nodded and smiled.

[photo by Louise Lawrence]