Have Overheads: Will Travel


The Iberian Connection

This was a second trip to Portugal and a first to Spain. I had lined them up so that I could go from talks and workshops in Lisbon and Coimbra to a talk at the University of Madrid and a meeting with the publisher of one of my books in Spanish.

From a cold, drizzling English morning, heavy shirted and thick sweatered I stepped out of the plane onto the Lisbon tarmac and am hammered by the 35° heat. At mid-day you know only that it will get hotter. And so into Lisbon traffic. There are approximately, by my rough estimate, 30,000,000 more cars in the city than it was designed to handle. The northern convention, whereby cars generally stay on the road and pedestrians on the sidewalk, has been superseded in Lisbon, particularly if you should want to park. If you can get onto a slice of sidewalk, you klaxon loudly and drive forward scattering the damn pedestrians. You risk not one but two layers of cars parking between you and the road, but the one secure convention seems to be to leave a sufficient space of sidewalk unoccupied so that the earliest arrivals can explore along the innermost part of the sidewalk for an opening to the road. Outside my hotel there is a regular morning line of double parked cars, occasionally triple. You would be well advised not to rent one of the sleek new Citroens with the sloping hoods. You might return to find a Japanese four-wheel drive sports-utility vehicle parked on top.

Lisbon has traffic signals, with pedestrian signals too: a standing red figure is alight some of the time and a walking green figure at other times. I saw no evidence that the natives had discovered the intended purpose of these. Conversation in Lisbon is progressing to a new level. If you want to talk, you climb into your respective cars and klaxon at each other. The sophisticated modulations achieved by the natives has reached degrees of articulacy beyond human speech.

My first talk in Lisbon was to a group of teachers. In contrast to Scandinavian audiences, who had to be cajoled into asking any questions or venturing any opinion, in Lisbon most of my audiences assumed that I was brought in for the purpose of providing them with an audience--inadequate by myself, of course, but I did supply the roomful who were much more significant targets for their lengthy addresses. Pausing was lethal; at anything more than a hasty intake of breath various tensely tumescent and cruelly constrained virtuosi released their flood of ideas, elaborating on what I should have said or what I ought to go on to say. There was some comfort in realising that one couldn't disappoint such an audience.

The small conference, on teaching history, was held in a secondary school. I always feel a bit of a fool dressed up in jacket and tie in semi-tropical weather, but the sense of folly is compounded a hundred-fold when one sees oneself through the eyes of a bunch a nearly naked teen-agers lounging in the shade. Portuguese men commonly compromise by slipping their shoulders into their jackets but not putting their arms into the sleeves, thus the jackets hang off them like a cape. This no doubt helps keep the pits from overflowing but a bit of breeze threatens to sweep the jacket into the dust. Lunch was in the school canteen, where we lined up with the students, and handed over a flimsy ticket to the skeptical woman at the check-out.

Close to the school were dwellings--why avoid the word 'homes'?-- made up of whatever bits of plywood and corrugated roofing and plastic could be held together to give shelter. We discussed with our hosts what would be the best English translation of the Portuguese name for them, and settled on 'shanty-town'. I had seen a number of them around and inside Lisbon. Gypsies and colonial workers, women and ragged children, were mainly in sight. They were a matter of some shame to our hosts, and we were assured that their disappearance was a prominent aim of the government.

On the next day I had a meeting with people in the new government institute for educational research, headed by the intelligent and charming Natércio Afonso, whom I had met on my previous trip when he had been head of the college I had spoken at in Portelegre. The Institute was housed in one of those old tall buildings that line the older streets of the city. Anonymous looking places of unknowable business. Well, now I was finding out what one such place was about. Inside was a surprisingly large courtyard, with bloom and greenery, even if, like most greenery in Iberia, a tad exhausted and dusty to the northern eye used to a certain lushness in grasses and plants. I first met the political master of the place, the deputy minister, I think, of Education. A small square man of energy and decisiveness. He was oriented towards power, of which I clearly didn't represent much, but he had responsibilities even to anonymous visitors, and my ten minutes were filled with a studied attentiveness and deference with which even the Sultan of Brunai could hardly have found fault. The Institute was an instrument in plans, possibilities, dreams, and calculations of expanding in however small an arena his power, and these engaged some serious part of his soul.

It was pleasant to meet with Natércio Afonso again, and discuss his hopes for the new institute, and chat up some possible future collaborations. And to plan to join his family for lunch the following Sunday. He led me to the room where I was to give a talk to staff of the Institute--which turned out to be a friendly occasion.

In the evening, wearing my best somewhat creased togs, I went to the Lisbon Opera House for the most fantastic Carmen I have ever heard. It wasn't so much "Carmen" that was great as the French woman who played Carmen. She was, in a sense, too good. Tall, beautiful, singing with that wonderful ease that comes only with great mastery, among a group of tubby males threatening to burst their too-tight costumes, straining to stay on the same stage with her. A lost cause; the grotesque gap between genius and talent bared too pitilessly to view. Swirling her skirt she swaggered among them; was there more than a hint of contempt in her manner? Ludicrously implausible that this goddess could respond to this Don José as the play demanded. Yes, yes; miles better than Callas.

The culture of teen-age sex seems much further advanced and public in Iberia than it is in North America or northern Europe. I suppose it's the heat. The groping, stroking, licking, biting, motile embracing seem ubiquitous. Encouraged no doubt by the array of gleaming nudes of all sexes smiling out from every newsstand, and by the TV which carries the kind of skin-flicks that used to require a grubby raincoat in seedy parts of town. Rapidly flicking chanels in my hotel room to escape one I came to Benny Hill in Portuguese. Civilization is indeed setting in parts of Europe--though Benny Hill himself was reportedly a sophisticated and cultured chap.

The sex business seems to have had long-standing public stimulation, so to speak. Traffic islands seem invariably centred on some heroic nineteenth-century male, hero of the revolution, or the counter-revolution. He stands, one arm upstretched, in mid-speech to the broiling cars that entertain themselves noisily below, while around his feet are an array of naked or very partially draped women who clearly inspired Hugh Heffner and who seem intent on groping upward towards the hero's thighs. Above him, more naked women hold laurel wreaths over his head. His apparent unconcern, giving no hint of even the slightest distraction from his impassioned speech, is possibly edifying to some. Whatever the stimulus, the casual belief that the bodies of others are objects of constant and easy gratification has led to new forms of friendliness. It's probably the heat.

To Coimbra, enervated by the scorching weather. How could so much water survive to fill the river through the town? But the university, and large quantities of Evian water, raised the sagging spirit. Confidently spanning the hill-top above the town. The gilded Old Library is stunning to look at, but misses the point about librariness, which has to do with easy access to books and work-space. One feels that the baroque excess that undermined the functionality of this library is being repeated by modern librarians' devotion to technology.

While marvelling at the scarlet, gold, and ancient polished oak of the examination room, still in use for that purpose, I couldn't help seeing in my mind's eye the gouged and battered fifteen year old tables and chairs of the classrooms used in my home university for exams. One learns to beware of the remaining laminated wood chairs, and the ones missing a plastic foot, and one checks to see that the table has a wedge of paper under it leg to keep it from rocking whenever anyone leans on it.

The drive from Lisbon to Madrid was scarlet poppies all the way. With a stop at Trujillo, from where Pizzaro, encased in Toledo steel on an armoured horse, rode to central America and wrecked an Empire. And there in the wonderful small square of the town, still much as he left it, except for the plastic chairs that encroach out from the cafes, he sits proudly in bronze, more than life size, probably as he appeared to Monteczuma's people. Arrogant, rather--what the Romans suggested with 'superbus.' Not knowing that it was not so much his courage that laid waste the Aztec empire. It was the horses, but not in the sense they understood them as fearsome fighting animals--as meat tanks. Rather it was the fact that Europeans had for ten thousand years been herding large animals and had, at a cost of incalculable numbers of deaths, selectively bred immunities to the bugs we had acquired from these beasts. Pizzaro and his troops released ten thousand years of death on the unprotected Americans.

Encircled by late medieval buildings, sitting after dinner in the square, the sun going down, a caressing warmth, swallows scooping up insects, the cracked church bell, it would be easy to be persuaded to stay on. But no-one tried to persuade me.

Spain and Portugal were at the time of my visit both preparing for the grand integration of the European Common Market. Portugal is approaching it fearfully, rather as Canada slouched into the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.A and Mexico. But in Madrid there seemed genuine excitement, and the conviction that Madrid is to become again a great European city. In preparation, Spain seemed in the throes of reconstructing much of the country; new motorways seemed to be appearing in every direction. Madrid was being disemboweled, with signs of the new and "progressif" everywhere. All election posters encourage a vote for progress, for efficiency, for the new and better future just palpably around the corner, with a kind of energetic conviction that echoes the late nineteenth century. Lisbon clearly feels it cannot be left behind, and is ripping down buildings and tearing up roads and sidewalks on the Spanish model. The Spaniards, however, seem to have twigged to the idea that a proportion of the workforce needs to be deployed in the rebuilding process. In Lisbon, as far as I could see, there are three older men, each with a spade and a gray plastic bucket, who are charged with the reconstruction. One sees endless piles of stones and sand cluttering up the city which the heroic three will no doubt get to in time, if anyone has kept a record of where the stones and sand have been deposited.

The gorgeous Plaza Mayor in Madrid was being blasted towards rubble by a rock band when we got there. It was so deafening that we had to leave; another triumph of technology over civilization.

I was greeted by my Spanish publisher, (whom I had been writing to as Mr. Morata and who turned out to be the extremely elegant young woman owner of the company) with enthusiasm and pleasure, as though delighted to see an author. Old oak and leather gentling the meeting, room dark and cool against the fierce Madrid sun. The Spaniards care about their books still, and she handed over with evident pride the handsome copy of their translation of my book. (It is much better in Spanish.) She took me to lunch in the world's oldest restaurant&endash;verifiable in the Guinness Book of Records. Subterranean caverns, wonderful food, a wry, fat waiter who looked incongruously like John Bull, and Florentina Morata looked and talked exactly like the white woman brought up among the Sioux in Dances with Wolves.

The talk at the university proved an embarrassment to Ms. Morata. After the date of my visit was agreed, and I had set out, she discovered that the university was on holiday. So the Prado as a poor substitute for another commentary on my overheads.

It seems her company was founded by her grandfather, and published political tracts on behalf of the Republicans during the thirties. Under Franco the grandfather managed to survive by turning prudently to psychological and educational texts. My father was building aircraft in Coventry, in England, during the second world war. My imminent arrival persuaded my mother to return to Ireland, and so she says I am Irish on Hitler's side of the family. Spanish publication now is courtesy of Franco.

This experience of being warmly welcomed by publishers, which happens commonly on the European continent, though much less so in Britain, takes some getting used to. After typical North American experience, one has no idea how to behave, embarrassed to be considered in some degree significant in the process of producing a book. In North America, it seems clear, publishers are funding a major software development project that will eliminate the inconvenience of authors. I'm sure I've seen some of their preliminary test pieces, in need of further refinement as the featureless mechanical character of the prose is still a little too obvious. Indeed, they clearly are already producing whole journals, and have discovered that academics, desperate to be published, are replicating the style generated by the imperfect computer program.

A small detour to Toledo on the way back to Lisbon. Can past events live on in a place, affecting us despite the erasure of cultural distinctness that is the great destructive contribution of the latter half of the twentieth century? Toledo is like any tourist raddled city, but I hated the place. Arabs, Jews, Christian heretics--anyone who was civilized and thought--seems to have been eagerly slaughtered there. I was more at home with the skeleton remains of Roman towns and villas and magnificent engineering feats still standing solid, functional, approaching human perfection. And happy to arrive back within the embrace of Lisbon. I agree with 5% Gulbenkian and Sean Connery in The Russia House, that Lisbon is a very easy city to live in, if I could only get my tongue around those diphthongs.

Portugal is a country of ? million. In the park across from my hotel there was a book fair. The city's publishers each had a booth or two or three, depending on their output, and each booth was separated by about ten meters, and the set of booths stretched, on both sides of the of the central walkway the whole length of the long park. I suppose it's the heat. After sex there's nothing much else to do but read, given the shortage of T.V. chanels and Benny Hill on those. But it suggests a degree of literacy unknown in North America, perhaps never to be known. Yes, an apartment in one of those houses looking out over the Tagus, on that curving street up to the castle, with a tiled entrance and a shaded inner courtyard. Can one become a university remittance man?

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