How To Clean A Fish: Simple Stories Tell the Tale

How to Clean a Fish – and Other Adventures in Portugal
Esmeralda Cabral, University of Alberta Press, 2023, Edmonton Alberta, 302 pages

I like simple paintings of fish so the cover of How to Clean a Fish appealed to me. I know, that’s not a great reason to read a book, but I also love stories about adventuring in other countries. I also like Portugal. And the colour orange on the cover was another plus.

So it was with some disappointment that when I delved into the book, the author chose mundane topics to describe her family’s decision and efforts to move for about a year to Portugal. Esmeralda Cabral, who was born in the Azores, so Portuguese is her first language, wrote about getting passports and booking flights and renting their house in Vancouver. She explained in detail about transporting their dog. When they arrived in Costa da Caparica, a beach town that is a short ferry-ride away from Lisbon, the ordinary continued. Cabral wrote about going to the grocery store, complained about the neighbour’s barking dog, raved about shopping in a real market and generally kept up the mundane.

But I continued.

I would look at the cover of the book and then drool over the very cool hand-drawn map on page XVI and hope. Hope that things would improve. And they did – a lot. The stories the author tells are never earth-shattering. They move beyond mundane, but they are pretty much about the kind of things you might expect to happen. Problems reading menus, misunderstandings with landlords, too many houseguests. Typical. But somehow Cabral’s straightforward prose began to resonate with me. She wasn’t trying to impress me with exaggerated stories or turn what happened to her, her husband and daughter into anything more than what they were.

In the end I learned a lot about Portugal, especially its cuisine.

It’s a great read. Informative. Interesting. Insightful. Simple pleasures for simple folk.Ee