Have Overheads: Will Travel


The Portuguese Connection

The telephone rang one mid-morning in November. After the preliminaries, during which I learned that the call was from Portugal and that I had had some contact with the woman some years before when she was a graduate student in Boston, she asked:

"Will you come to Portugal and give us a conference?"

What did she want me to do? Had she heard by some confused path that I had expertise in organizing conferences? Perhaps she meant give them a conference paper?

"You mean give a talk, with overheads?"

Clearly I was being obtuse.

"No, we want you to give us a conference. A conference."

It turned out to be the talk and overheads they wanted. During the period before this trip I had damaged soft tissue behind my knee, and was recommended to get blood to it, by cycling on a flat surface at very low gear for a half hour or so at a time. The best spot, very early in spring, turned out to be a cinder running track in a local park. It was little used this time of year. I bought a teach-yourself-Portuguese tape and cycled, headphones over ears, and legs a mad whirl while the bike moved forward sedately.

It turned out to be the park where herds of Dobermans and German Shepherds graze on local children and madly peddaling professors; the dogs barely controlled by owners who seemed all to have chunks of metal on leather clothing, announcing appalling psychological deficits for which the clothes and dogs were woefully inadequately attempting to compensate. These turned out not to be the ideal circumstances for gaining a quick mastery of a foreign language--eduational researchers may want to note.

A brutal journey to Lisbon; the overnight crossing of the Atlantic, when the sun departs behind while one eats dinner and snoozes unsatisfactorily and then comes sneering up in front before a proper night can get underway. A grim wait in Amsterdam, barely enlivened by one of the best Duty Free shopping areas anywhere, and then a further stop at Porto, where the Port came from. On the way over, Paris was a small blur of purple murk down to the left.

Trying not to stagger coming down the steps onto the tarmac for a bus ride into the terminal, wanting nothing but to sleep and get out of the oven I had somehow walked into. I was greeted cheerfully by Céu. Her name, she said, is Maria do Céu--Mary of the Sky or Mary in heaven. But as every woman in Portugal is called Maria the name doesn't do the basic job of distinguishing one person from another, so Marias are usually known by their second name. Another couple of visitors had arrived on an earlier flight, and a colleague of Maria's was along to add to her greetings.

The conference was to be in Portelegre in the east of the country, so first we must tour Lisbon. We drove from the airport, which seems to be in the center of the city, directly into rush-hour traffic, horns more or less perpetually klaxoning, heat hammering down and broiling the group squashed intimately into the small car. Driving in Portugal is a matter of accelerating at maximum speed into any space that opens up in front of one's car then slamming on the brakes just before hitting what first gets in the way--wall, policeman, bus, pedestrian. I decided to give up my attempts to learn Portuguese. Within a few years they will all be killed by automobiles. Blear-eyed and hedged behind buses, I saw little of Lisbon, except, in a momentary opening, a huge Turkish-domed building that only added to my befudlement.

Emerging from the city, we shot like a cork from a champaign bottle across the coutryside. I recall black-clad widows, old men with donkeys, poor-looking villages, and endless cork-oaks, flashing by. Perhaps I could only take in clichés at this stage of meltdown.

"We put you in a farm-house. It is 27 kilometers from Portalegre." Looking at farm-houses as we sped by, I initially worried that this was going to be different from the usual conference Hilton and then relaxed, convinced that the chance of actually reaching the farm-house alive was at best remote. We were travelling at supernatural speed in this tiny car on narrow roads and it was fast getting dark. Oddly enough we made it and were poured into what seemed a very large farm-house with cheerful Goodnights. Exhausted I fell into bed, to wake bright and perky an hour or so later ready for the dawn that was breaking over Tibet.

Getting dressed in the morning, I noticed that the wardrobe was an old confessional, the grill and kneeler still in place. Much supply, little demand these days. Perhaps a tanker-full of them to America might pay off handsomely? The room was large, high-ceilinged. When the curtains were drawn and the shutters rolled up I found a large curved balcony. The farm-house was what in France might be called a small chateau, built by some rich Lisbon businessman in the bad old days as a retreat, now taken over by the national tourist board and developed as a pousada, an up-scale hotel.

Breakfast waited downstairs. Having lain awake much of the night, I fell asleep in time to be the last dowstairs. I sat alone with a black-skirted, lace-aproned young woman smilingly ready to pour whatever I wanted, cut the bread, pass the various jams if they were more than three inches from my hand. As I was supplied with all I needed, I smiled, expecting her to leave. She stood silent, hands folded, poised and watching lest I needed something else passing.

After breakfast I took a few minutes on the balcony outside my room. Olive groves, and vines around the house, red roofs of a nearby village away to the left, chirping of bright colored finches, dull thudding cow-bells, a cuckoo, a cock somewhere in the village, an unfamiliar bright beetle on the balustrade, distant purple mountains which form the boundary with Spain, and miles and miles of hills and silent valleys stretching west down towards Lisbon and the sea.

About two hours behind shedule, we were picked up and driven into Portelegre. That no-one thought it worth giving any explanation for the delay hinted at something about Portuguese organizational style. Tearing through the tiny cobbled streets, we allowed walls and pedestrians a good half inch of leeway. The conference began. On the stage sat the head of the college in which we were, the organizers, and, quite by himself at the other side of the stage sat the bishop. he smiled, I thought rather moroseley, throughout. But was completely ignored in his seat of honor, and said nothing, and went away by himself at the end of the welcoming speeches.

I was assigned an interpreter, with terminal halitosis, who sat whispering up my nose a translation of the procedings. "Now he is talking about history." Never enough to piece together more than the general topic, but too much to let me go to sleep as I longed to do. The fact that we started very late seemed to have no detering effect on anyone. Everything continued to run late but, it was clearl assumed, everything that was scheduled had to happen. It seemed through the early part of the day that it had occured to none of the organizers that the time deficit would eventually cause a problem. I learned that there are two forms of activity: The casual disregard of time, in which the South American "mañana" expresses a condition of urgency unknown in Portugal, and mass frenzy because there isn't enough time. There is no hiatus between these two forms. The North American sinks happily into the "latin" pace, only to find everyone around suddenly into the other condition and oneself being hurled into the back of a car and driven tire-shriekingly around the town. I could discern no signal that flicked the natives from one condition to the other, but it seemed to happen to all at the same instant.

Because the region is very poor, and though the Gulbenkian Foundation put up a lot of the money, ("5% Gulbenkian" loved Lisbon, so left the city a wonderful museum and stacks of oil-sqeezed money for cultural enrichment) the conference was also supported by a number of small towns in the region. This meant that each day we were bused through the countryside to a different town. The conference typically began with a "brief" address by the mayor of wherever we were that day, and the, usually communist, mayor would talk impassionedly for hours about the council's accomplishments, the local crafts--samples of which would be for sale at the door at lunch time--and his hopes and expectations for a yet more glorious future.

I noticed two features of the papers delivered at the conference by the Portuguese that are different from North American traditions. First, the words "and finally" are spoken about one quarter of the way into a paper. Second, there is a time limit on papers that was more or less enforced, but there is no time limit on questions. In North America a speaker may take as many as ten briefly stated questions. In Portugal that would be imposible. The first questioner would typically go on and on, often with a vivid passion and exhuberance far exceeding that of the paper. I concluded that these were the people whose papers had been rejected and they were delivering them as lengthy questions instead, determined to show how foolish the organizers were to have rejected them. But there is something oddly soothing about listening to a paper that one cannot understand at all.

My paper, delivered with the help of glamerous overheads, was to be followed by a panel on which I was also to sit. That day had begun leisurely. I had read the T.L.S. for half an hour after breakfast on the balcony, lulled by cow-bells in the languid air, and distracted by finches and a variety of stunning beetles. ("What can you infer about God from his creations?" Haldane was once asked. "That He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.") Then took a stroll in the garden, where I encountered Céu and the famous professor from the Sorbonne who would also be on the panel with me after lunch. I can't recall her name, except that it was the same as a make of French car--Dr. Citroen, or Renault, or Peugeot. Let us say Citroen. She was utterly charming, beginning with effusive praise for my work, as I muttered deprecating and utterly insincere noises, and then asking me a series of questions about recent books. I answered as best I could. "How interesting!" she would say. "Ah, a telling insight!" "So very true!" "This is all so important, I must ensure its immediate translation into French." Clearly a woman of great discernment as well as charm.

The bus eventually came, my overheads did their job, and then the panel gathered for its discussion. It was time for Dr. Citroen, who launched into an extended and bitter denunciation of my work as exeplifying a range of obtuse confusions and patently an active malevolence directed at perverting the minds of the world's children. She hoped that the audience would join her in treating my despicable and patently erronious theory with the contempt it so richly merited. This was spoken in French, so I was able to follow even without the help of my translator who, I thought, rather exaggerated the vitriol. Then it was my turn. I could think of no reason not to agree with her.

The conference organizers arranged trips for us during a couple of afternoons off, and entertainments for most evenings. At the beautiful hill town of Marvão the local choir sang, mostly in English, with a haunting perfection. In honor of the visitor from Canada they sang, better than I have ever heard it, the Battle Hymn of the Republic. (A tiny confusion, much less than they constantly suffer with regard to their large neighbor to the east.) We toured the mighty fortress at Castelo de Vide, and I stood in one of the round stone guard-posts built out from the walls looking to the mountains over which the Spanish hordes might have poured. But what later poured was silk, and its wealth built towns like Portalegre on the road down to Lisbon and the sea routes to the west.

We attended a display of local puppetry, colorful and ingenious, the puppets little short of life-sized. And another enchanted evening listening to a group of young people who had been prserving and rescusitating local folk-songs. We visited the oldest synogogue in Portugal, used in late medieval times by Jews expelled from Spain, before they were expelled also from Portugal. And along narrow streets, with colorful Gothic doorways, tiled entries, and singing caged finches.

At the end of the conference, outside a restaurant on a hill top, under wide-spreading trees, we had a peasant feast, dancing, singing and emotional farewells. Yes, we would return to Portugal. No, we would never again confuse Portugal with Spain. Yes, Portugal was the most beautiful country. Yes, its wines were the best, its fruit the juiciest, its people the finest. Yes, we would return, yes, yes, yes.

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