Africa at best is barnyards pretending to be theme parks, Europe at best is theme parks pretending to be countries, and "France" is French for "Slovenia." How can anyone keep all these places straight? I can, but Iím not sure exactly how. Portugal barely exists, even if youíve been there as often as I have, yet somehow it manages to preserve its identity in my mind. Its dignity, even. When I last dined outdoors in Lisbon, and watched as the waiters shooed away the beggar woman with the baby yet left the roving accordionist unmolested, I certainly gave a knowing American chuckle, but I knew the episode wasnít all that telling, or damning. I knew enough to look at the place in deep retrospect, to survey all the things Europe doesnít do. The Portuguese navy delivered little or no tsunami aid. Norwegian inventors are not world-famous. You canít name an Austrian book. Stuff like that.

On this visit to Portugal, my fourth and my brotherís first, weíd fondly recall Don Martin cartoon sound effects ("klik-runk" is what a notaryís embossing stamp makes), weíd make a list of Euro-phenomena to Google when we got back (Michael Bublť, ätipe Drews), and Iíd improve my Mr. T imitation, which was only right as this was the only country where Iíd ever seen "The A-Team" on TV. Even if a Eurabian civil war broke out and Nazism came back, our week would remain not only memorable but non-trivial. One visits Europe many times over a long period of time in order to figure it out, and one does it no injustice when, just one of those times, oneís brother recounts a lot of old "Seinfeld" episodes.


Something Europe had this time that was not Eurabian or Nazi or (I think) on "Seinfeld" was Soviets. On the bus from Coimbra to Viseu, we sat behind a grizzled gent reading Argumenti i Fakti. I saw the headline "Out of Love for His Son and for Tennis" and I learned that Sophia Lorenís diet is nye yest' kak slon, "donít eat like an elephant." Back in the Lisbon airport weíd seen a poster advertising, in Ukrainian, reduced rates on money transfers, and later on weíd see Cyrillic graffiti. Weíd also see posters making clear that the Portuguese Communist Party was still politically onstage. This was all new to me.

On my Turkey trip Iíd read State of Fear, the title of which gets an explanation only quite late in the book, and then only in the space of a few dense pages. It had seemed a little overwrought, but now I knew it wasnít. People, Europeans especially, really do pine for the bleak automatic despair of the Cold War. According to the book, the "state of fear" began within weeks of the fall of the Berlin Wall, at which point new fears (environmental ones, chiefly) had to be invented.

Or revived. Russia could no longer impress, however, if its nationals had to come to Portugal - Portugal! - to find work. Not long ago at all, that had to be unthinkable.


Michael Bublť, on the other hand, was totally thinkable. On widescreen monitors in the Lisbon subway, we saw ads for his music. Quoth Tony Bennett, whom all Europeans apparently know and trust, this is the one truly good singer to appear in the last seven years (i.e., 1998-2005). That showed in Portuguese onscreen, but train rumble prevented our hearing any of his songs or even guessing what language they were in. I should say that M. Bublť was not egregiously Euro: he clearly wasnít a Scandinavian hair band or a semi-Middle Eastern manufactured heartthrob. As already indicated, we resolved to find out if he had a website. Thatís a good safe first step.

Ditto for ätipe Drews. This was a Croatian boxer who beat, and I use the word figuratively, an Italian boxer. Few punches were landed, or thrown. The German announcer on Eurosport had to confess this Kampf was langsam. Peter said that before Max Schmeling, who studied American boxers and ascertained they were actually trying to hurt each other, European pugilism was pretty much just fencing with gloves on. It still was, with this pair. Interesting name, though, for a hard-skulled Slav.

And one more website to look up: The Portuguese navy is recruiting...musicians. Thatís what it said on the poster, in between officer-aspirants and second mates.


The Internetís effect on journalistic quality has not been uniform by any means. I could never have studied Slovene without the Internet, because written Slovene scarcely existed before the Internet. But Brazilian journalism, once lucid, letter-perfect, and not infrequently courageous, turned into in Portuguese, and is no longer worth looking at. As for Portugal and what passes for news-hounding there, it has stayed about the same. Before and after the Internet, "Portugal" came across as a small poor city trying to get money from two other small poor cities called "France" and "Germany."

Maybe that explains the timidity of those boxers: itís a slippery slope from boisterousness to meanness to punk savagery, and what will our patrons think? Authority looms in Europe. Yet youíre never really sure what it is or who it is or even where it is. Its mere existence is supposed to be consolation enow. "Brussels" crops up a lot, but the metonym is ill-developed: what about Brussels, you might ask, but no news story will tell you.

Just before our bus ride to Viseu and Covilh„, Peter went on a run around Coimbra. While waiting for him to return, I looked at the local phone book. Like its Brazilian counterparts, it had a lot of non-phone-related text, including a history, which did not confirm our idea that the universityís football team hadnít won a single game between 1455 and 1802 but didnít deny it either. I learned that the university had student co-ops, perhaps very much like the one Iíd lived in so happily at Cornell. Except Cornell, which owned mine, hardly patronized it. Coimbra, on the other hand, crowed about its formal promotion of irreverence (a word wildly overused on both sides of the Portuguese Atlantic), as if irreverence were a bodily function uncool people had forgotten how to execute. At Cornell, we just had fun, then left and thought no more of it. Coimbraís co-ops came off sounding like Quebec separatism or National Public Radio, which was very likely the point.


Covilh„ was the source of the one and only European imperial echo I ever heard. But that was from a very elderly woman in 1995, and when I recommended a visit, I had no idea of looking her up. Dona Elvira was probably dead, her nice cat Napole„o too, and even if she werenít, it just couldnít be the same, the mountain afternoon sunlight through the single high window and her shining blue eyes.

The mountain afternoon sunlight alone, yes: that would be there, and it was. As I had done in 1995, we marched up the ridge, two stiff hours of hiking, switchback upon switchback, past the derelict TB sanatorium to the observation tower at the very top, where you could see all the way to Spain.

Peter, who had asked for a thorough tour of Portugal and knew he was being drug through one, played along nobly but without enthusiasm. I acknowledged his indulgence but otherwise didnít care. Besides being beautiful, Covilh„ is where I got my one and only glimpse of old Europe militant, Portugal as a world power. It hadnít been a great world power, but at least it had had the idea that the measure of a country can only be other countries. There is nothing higher. Portugalís overseas history lies almost entirely before the irruption of ludicrously weak supranational bodies, toothless global scolds, and anyone who saw any of this history while it was happening deserves some chivalrous attention.

A short while back, some lifer civil servants in Angola whoíd technically worked for Portugal before independence thirty years ago demanded Portuguese pensions, and the last I heard, they were going to get them. I didnít want to know what the old gal thought of that.


I wonder if anybody in Portugal says, "At least we donít have many Moslems." If anybody does, he sure isnít getting his name in the paper, ever.

If there is a Eurabian civil war, it wonít directly affect Portugal, or Slovenia for that matter. Even if it did, the effect might be slight. One must bear in mind that neither side wants anything, except maybe self-destruction, but even that entails some work nobody particularly wants to do. But you canít predict anything. Most Moslem moves are bad, but all bad Moslem moves are optional - so anything can happen. Itís easier to guess, for example, that France wants more EU members so it can dump its nuclear waste somewhere, and maybe force Moslems to go to those places too. Thatís why I see Nazism making a comeback. It would let France be France again, indeed let quite a few countries be themselves again too. If you are a citizen of a European country and are appalled by what happened to, say, Theo Van Gogh, and youíd like to vote for somebody whoíll do something about this, you probably canít. There isnít anybody. With no constitutional means of reclaiming their own borders, European countries may go for unconstitutional means. If, as always, they can find the energy.

At least they have enough to make a baby. Some doubt Europe still knows how, but I saw lots of pregnant women on this visit. Iím not so sure about the demographic-time-bomb idea, as it assumes reproductive preferences wonít change and the productivity of such people as remain in the European labor pool wonít increase. They might, and it could.


One habit we can safely assume Europeans wonít break is vacation-taking. Lots of construction, lots of villas for sale in the Algarve, a fairly ugly place that happens to be south, even if its name derives from the Arabic for "west." The headlands above the ocean at Sagres were as pretty as I remembered, but we had no business here other than to confirm this memory and buy a few souvenirs for Peterís family. Peter was shocked by the brashness of the pension touts, and I just laughed, maybe a bit evilly. You think THIS is hustling? Youíve never been to the Middle East. But I should have been a bit more sympathetic. I should have used my Mr. T voice, which had got pretty accurate by now.

Lisbon and its suburb Cascais, very pleasant towns actually, were more to our taste. Tranquilly hotelled, we watched a bizarre show on TV, a series of skits whose punchlines or at least nature I made some effort to translate. To the extent I could, I determined that the humor was awful, as it usually is outside the U.S. and Canada. In one skit, a doctor informed a hairdresser that he was homosexual. The hairdresser broke into tears. The doctor explained his diagnosis. Among other things, he had observed the hairdresser was not attracted to women. The hairdresser maintained that he was - to his three sisters. Rimshot! But what amazed me was, the figure of fun in this Portuguese skit spoke Spanish. Why?

Out on the town, every town outside the Algarve I mean, we could move unmolested, and select restaurants in an unhurried fashion. We ate a lot of pizza, which was remarkably good, a lot of steak and pork too, and avoided cod, though I'm not sure exactly why. A thoroughly uninformed prejudice, I'm sure. If challenged to describe what a cod looks like, I'd probably say, A duffel bag? I really have no idea. Oddly, Peter made no mention of a cod-themed "Seinfeld" episode, though it seems there had to have been one.


I hadn't heard much classical music in Portugal, which is strange. Classical music is Europe's music; they invented it; anywhere else, it sounds like a pose, but here it is genuine. Nevertheless, there are other kinds of music to be heard, three kinds as a matter of fact. There's Eurovision, which immediately makes you understand why there are the remaining two, regulation folk-melancholy and Laibach. Fado falls into the second category.

I mention this because I saw the vocalist for Madredeus, a sort of modern fado group, on TV giving an interview just before I left for the airport. She observed that Lisbon is one of the few cities that has its own music. I think that's right. Fado, and azulejos, and the Portuguese language: that's just about all Portugal now has to remind you you're in it. I'd sent Peter and his daughter a Madredeus CD and, for the contrast in accents, a CD of the Brazilian group Capital Inicial, and though I probably shouldn't have been surprised, I was at my niece's preference for the latter. Though a teenager, she isn't mopey, and evidently understands, as Brazilians do and Portuguese maybe don't, that music is or should be entertainment. Fado is culturally freighted: it isn't supposed to be entertainment, or on the radio, which, now that I think of it, it isn't. Another slowly perceived thing Europeans don't do.

Whether Peter or his daughter picked up on the differences in Iberian and Brazilian expression, I don't know, though he really made an effort to follow the language, and put up with my extensive and very pedantic commentary on variations in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. We met a couple of Brazilians on this trip, and as I became considerably more discursive with them than with the locals, Peter must have noticed some of those variations. (What I noticed was that I kept forgetting to ask these Brazilians why they'd come to Portugal in the first place. I'd never met one in Brazil who wanted to see this part of Europe.)

I hope he noticed. It may take some time. Europe requires reflection; in anything less than the long term, it is a fairly arid topic. I at least will reflect. But right now? Let's not get all ponderous and portentous on the subject of Europe and its future; let's think instead about the cool idea I got while waiting in the Austin airport. I saw somebody with a sweatshirt that said COLLEGE on it, like in Animal House, and I thought what somebody needs to make is a docudrama titled If Belushi Had Lived.

© 2006 J.A.Hutter

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