Easing into Portugal
My first major journey to give a talk began when 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 speaker some years before when she was a graduate student in Boston, she asked:
"Will you come to Portugal and give us a conference?"
I was puzzled. What did she want me to do? Had she heard by some confused path that I had expertise in organizing conferences? It would have to have been a very confused path. Perhaps she meant give them a conference paper?
"You mean give a talk?"
Clearly I was being obtuse.
"No, please give us a conference. A conference."
It turned out to be a talk they wanted. Because I'd never before done anything as reckless or absurd as travel thousands of miles in order to talk at people for a couple of hours, I dithered. I said I'd have to think it over, consult with my wife, consider whether I had anything useful to contribute to the topic of the conference, which was about teaching history. I was stalling, trying to work out some good reason to say no gracefully. But they would pay my airfare and accommodation, and give me $500 as well. And Portugal did sound romantic. Still, I looked for reasons to say no, and encouraged my wife to disapprove of the idea, but she couldn't see why I shouldn't go. The reason was obvious—fear.
Looking back, of course, I can only feel bewildered that I should have been so fearful. But I was, and that was that. Even so, a couple of days later, I picked up the phone and heard myself (with some surprise and horror) say how I'd be delighted to come and give them a conference.
During the previous couple of days, I had endlessly rehearsed the arguments for going or not going. The former didn't much include seeing sunny beaches and old monasteries, new people and fellow academics in romantic Portugal, and having an opportunity to spread my ideas around, like manure, or any of the other sensible reasons you might expect. The plus side was largely the money towards the crippling mortgage. All those other delights you might imagine would be on the plus side were reasons not to go. Anxiety about travel, insecurity meeting new people, concern that my ideas would be treated like manure, all bellowed that I should stay home and play with the kids.
But in a serendipitous moment, the die was cast. I didn't decide, as I recall. Something decided for me; a part of the packet of choices I had picked up somehow in my upbringing that plopped out unbidden at that moment. It just seemed at that rash moment the thing to do.
The journey to Lisbon was a bit brutal. The overnight crossing of the Atlantic involved the usual deceit; the sun departs behind while one eats dinner and snoozes unsatisfactorily, exposing tonsils and dental work to the no doubt incurious eyes of the air hostesses, and then comes sneering up in front before a proper night can get underway. Then I faced a grim wait in Amsterdam, and then a further stop at Porto, where the Port wine came from.
Stepping dazedly down from the plane onto the tarmac for the bus ride into the Lisbon terminal, I felt as though I had been shoved into an oven. I mainly wanted nothing but to sleep and, as a reasonable preliminary, to take a breath or two of air that didn't dry out every mucous membrane it went near. Inside the terminal, I was greeted cheerfully by my telephone chum, Ceú. Her name, she said, is Maria do Ceú--Mary of the Sky or Mary in Heaven. But as nearly 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 to the same conference had arrived on an earlier flight, and so we were all led out into the ferocious sunshine and squeezed into the back of a tiny car. Ceú and her male co-organizer, whose name I missed, took the front seats. As the other visitors were an oversized Englishwoman, whom we were to call Cassie, and an appallingly oversized American male, Bob, the space available for an anxiety-slim Irish-Canadian was rather less than you might be inclined to leave for a slice of processed meat between two buns.
But this settled it; there clearly is a Portugal. I had walked out to the car among people speaking Portuguese, the spectacular view coming in to land had been of terracotta-roofed Lisbon resplendent in the sun, the noisy cheerfulness around the airport exit was conducted by olive-complexioned people a bit smaller than the North American norm, and those automobile license plates were conclusive. I remember as a fourteen-year-old schoolboy reaching half way across the English Channel to France on a foggy day. ("Fog in the Channel; the continent is cut off," as the British thought of it.) It had been my first trip abroad, and I thought that this was the point they would have to come round and tell us if all that knowledge we had learned about foreign countries was fiction and that there wasn't really anything beyond the Channel. It was just possible that what we had learned in Geography about the world had been made up. I couldn't imagine why; perhaps to help us feel less lonely, or perhaps there was some more complex reason why the government found it necessary to invent a fictive world beyond the British Isles. As I was then about to reach "France," they would have to let me in on the conspiracy. But no one came round, there was no announcement, and I discovered there was a France, which more or less conformed to the things I had learned about it. I am less skeptical now, and expect places to be there when I travel to them for the first time—but you never can be entirely confident about the limits of the credible.
The conference was to be in Portalegre in the east of the country, but first we must tour Lisbon. We drove from the airport, which seemed, dangerously, to be near the center of the city, directly into rush-hour traffic, horns more or less perpetually klaxoning, heat hammering down and broiling the visitors squashed intimately in the back of the 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 dead from automobile crashes. Blear-eyed and hedged behind buses, and between those impressive and unresisting mounds of flesh, I saw little of Lisbon, except, in a momentary opening, a huge Turkish-domed building that only added to my befuddlement.
Emerging from the city, we shot like a cork from a champaign bottle across the countryside--an image suggested by the endless cork oaks, their bark carefully striped off in chunks. I recall black-clad widows, old men with donkeys, poor-looking villages, and the cork oaks flashing by. Perhaps I could only take in clichés at this stage of meltdown.
"We put you in a farmhouse. It is 27 kilometers from Portalegre." Looking at farmhouses as we sped by, I initially worried that this was going to be different from the usual conference Hilton and then concluded that it didn't matter; the chance of actually reaching the farmhouse alive was at best remote. We were travelling at a supernatural velocity in this tiny car on narrow roads and it was fast getting dark. Cars coming from ahead of us approached at terrifying speed, rocking our car in passing as we no doubt rocked theirs, while the half-inch of air between the two vehicles was in danger of rending the space-time continuum.
Oddly enough we made it and were poured into what seemed a very large farmhouse with cheerful Goodnights! Exhausted I fell into bed, to wake an hour or so later, ready for the dawn that was no doubt breaking over Tibet. But I felt terrible, overwhelmed with shame that I had mortally insulted Ceú. What could I do about it? Too late for any repair! I felt quite desperate. Sweating I got out of bed and stood up, wondering where I could go; what could I do? Should I leave immediately to avoid having to face her again? I remember then, feet on the cold floor, thinking it odd that I couldn't bring into focus the details of how I had insulted her, knowing only that they had been appalling. Something brutally rude that I'd said loudly in public. Only quite gradually, standing in the dark, with the barest outline of the window visible, did I realize that I had woken with shock from a disturbing nightmare. My stomach felt tense and disturbed. I climbed back into bed, and lay in that jet-lagged wide-awake state for hours, trying to tell myself to relax and sleep. We often seem not to hear what we tell ourselves.
Getting dressed in the morning, I noticed that the wardrobe was an old confessional, the grill and kneeler still in place. Bringing to mind earlier shames, as a small boy having to tell priests in similar small cubicles about the grave sins I had committed. I once had to bear the terror of carrying for days the guilt that I unburdened on the following Saturday: "I looked at rude pictures, three times, Father." "And did you bring these pictures with you?" asked Father O'Brien. "No, Father. They're in the encyclopedias at home." What a disturbing night it had been, and in the morning I could recall nothing but the huge sense of distressed shame I had woken with, and my stomach still felt bad.
Unhooking my jacket from the confessional, I admired the ornate carving and the fine oak. The sins of childhood were replaced by other ways of seeing these increasingly antique boxes for confessor and sinner. As a mortgage-entangled adult, I couldn't help but wonder about potential profits from a tanker-full of them taken to America and slipped into the distribution channels of antique furniture shoppes. Ah, the wasted entrepreneurial possibilities. The room was large and high-ceilinged. When the curtains were drawn and the shutters rolled up I found a broad curved balcony. The farmhouse 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 tourist hotel.
Breakfast waited downstairs. Having lain awake much of the night, I had fallen deeply asleep as dawn arrived, and then was the last downstairs for breakfast. I sat alone in the elegant dining room, 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, hands folded on her apron, poised and watching lest I needed something else passing or bringing. By the end of the silent breakfast, hovered over by the young woman who was tense and clearly anxious to do everything right, my stomach felt worse. She was from the village, we learned later, and this was her first day. No doubt she had won the best job available, and seemed excessively determined to perform perfectly. We bowed much to each other as I left my dishes for her to clear, and I liberally used my one efficient Portuguese word, "obrigadu", thank you. "Obrigadu" is a man's thanks; "obrigada" is the female version, a woman's thanks. Her bows and thanks were accompanied by the sweetest smile, suffused with obvious relief that breakfast was over and she had survived.
After breakfast, I took a few minutes on the balcony outside my room. Olive groves, and vines around the house, terracotta roofs of the 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. All my life this balcony has been here, and it will likely be here when I die. Everything I see from it is beautiful. This hopeless yearning we can develop for certain places; to somehow possess them, feeling their relative permanence and our quick transience, and muffled resentment that while we can love them idolatrously, they care nothing for us.
About two hours behind schedule, we were picked up and driven into Portalegre. 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 host college, the conference organizers, and, quite by himself at the other side of the stage, the bishop. He smiled rather morosely, I thought, 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. Was the church come to this? I had read that Portugal was one of the most Catholic of countries, and when I saw that I was scheduled to speak on a Sunday morning, I asked Ceú whether this wouldn't mean I would get no audience, everyone being at Mass. She looked at me as though I was demented.
"No one here will go to Mass."
"Why was the bishop here then?"
She paused, as though she hadn't realized he had been there; he was a part of the old furniture of the place, not really noticed.
"What else does he have to do? You have a conference, you have a bishop."
I was assigned an interpreter, with terminal halitosis, who sat whispering up my nose a translation of the proceedings. "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 deterring effect on anyone. Everything continued to run late, but, it was clearly assumed, everything that was scheduled had to happen. It seemed through the early part of the day that it had occurred to none of the organizers that the time deficit would eventually cause a problem. I learned that there are two states 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 contentedly 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 of them at the same instant.
The topic of the conference was the teaching of history. It was a live political issue in a country trying to rebuild its democracy after the Salazar years. There tend to be three general positions on teaching history in schools. The first is held by those who think we should select for the curriculum the relevant history that will help students properly understand their future roles as citizens, and become committed to particular social and political values. This tends to lead, as it has in North America, to history being incorporated into Social Studies. The second cares nothing for relevance, and sees history as an academic discipline whose mastery shapes the mind in a desirable way; the curriculum in this case focuses on the canonical account of the birth and development of, largely, Western civilization. The third sees history as a source of material that can be used to nurture the students' talents and interests, facilitating their growing understanding of themselves; the curriculum can be chosen from whatever material seems of particular interest to particular students. At the conference, we heard advocacy for all three positions, attempts to integrate two or more of them, reasons why one or more is anti-educational, how best to teach to support one or more, what kind of curriculum would be best, and so on.
Calouste Gulbenkian ("5% Gulbenkian") had loved Lisbon, so he left the city a wonderful museum and stacks of money from oil deals, from which he had culled his invariable 5%, to fund cultural activities. Because this region in Portugal is very poor, and despite the fact that the Gulbenkian Foundation put up most of the money for the conference, it turned out we were also supported by a number of small towns in the region. The quid pro quo for this included our being bused each day through the countryside to a different town. The peripatetic conference typically began with a "brief" address by the mayor of wherever we were that day. The mayor, usually communist, would talk impassionedly for hours about the council's accomplishments, about the wonderful 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.
At one point a sub-set of the conference was "delivered" by the mayor himself to a local house which had been turned into a mini-factory. The whole family was present--paterfamilias large, unshaven, and morosely feeding the furnace, wife at a bare wooden table with four children, the youngest maybe five, decorating clay vases with small white stones in traditional styles. The group seemed begrimed with what seemed like centuries of working clay and stones and toting coal for the furnace. The small house was entirely given over to this industry, and was enervatingly hot in an already broiling climate. The children self-consciously behaving well under the eyes of the visitors. But what was their average day like? The youngest bright-eyed and mischievous, and the oldest heavy-eyed and deeply bored. What price one's refined educational theories here, eh? I felt desperately mean buying only a small vase, suitable for packing into my small case.
On emerging from the house into the sun, we were a somber group. In our silence as we walked between the impoverished huts along the dirt street we shared that overwhelming shame of the relatively rich in the face of the unrelatively poor. And, unavoidably underneath that sense of shame, relief. That one might feel relief that fate had dealt one a hand of comfortable furniture, good food, leisure, and varied work that one might in fact enjoy may suggest crass insensitive materialism, but there is something to be said for it. And of course, thinking this only increases one's sense of shame.
Later in the day, 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, to lull the listeners into a false sense of relief that the piece was mercifully concluding. 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 five or even ten briefly stated questions. In Portugal that would be impossible. The first questioner would typically go on and on, often with a vivid passion and exuberance 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 had been to have passed over their vastly superior offerings.
There is something oddly soothing about listening to a paper in a language that one cannot understand at all. I found myself listening closely to the way Portuguese voices produced their unique noises. The language at first sounded like Russian, and not at all like the Knightsbridge accented forms my cassette teach-yourself-Portuguese-in ten-minutes delivered for its Anglo-Saxon audience. Everyone spoke at high speed, biting off vowels at the beginnings and ends of words, tossing in those diphthongs from half way up the nose as if God had intended anyone to talk like that. They took perfectly harmless phonemes and somehow squashing them tight in their jaws and ejecting them with the tongue into extraordinary sounds no one else on the planet has managed to approximate, for good reasons one suspects. That river I had always Englishly called the Tagus disappears into a sibilant rich splatter like a controlled sneeze.
My paper, delivered with the help of overheads, was to be followed by a panel on which I was also to sit. To give you an adequate sense of what occurred, we have to go back to the beginning of the day. I had read The Times Literary Supplement for half an hour after breakfast on the balcony, lulled by those cow-bells in the languid air, and distracted by the finches and stunningly shaped and colored beetles. ("What can you infer about God from his creations?" J.B.S. Haldane was once asked. "That He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.") Then I had taken a stroll in the garden, where I had encountered Ceú 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, 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.
My talk went as well as might be hoped, given that I spoke a few sentences, that Ceú then translated into Portuguese. She was clearly expert, and the laughter for her versions of my jokes was much more energetic than that from those who spoke English as I delivered the originals. Then the panel gathered for its discussion. Dr. Citroen spoke first and launched into an extended and bitter denunciation of my work as exemplifying a range of obtuse confusions and 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 erroneous 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 muttered some kind of mild demurral, too astonished by her duplicitousness to know what to say or how to feel.
In part I was amused by the slightly surreal performance and wanted to laugh. But there were also layers of alarm and shame, as I assumed that perhaps many in the audience would be persuaded by her attack. Earlier I had been so taken up with her flattery, and my consequent acceptance of her astuteness and good judgement, that I failed to notice what should have been hints about what was to come. The praise had obviously been excessive, and she would surely not have known much about my work anyway. And I should have been suspicious of the crinkle-eyed, totally absorbed, slow head-nodding sympathy, as though taken from a book of sympathy-expressing behaviors that Martian spies might carry around to help them fit into human populations. And her conversation with Ceú dwelt rather extensively on the further items that might be provided for her convenience, and on the set of celebrated scholars who made it necessary for her to leave this insignificant conference immediately after the panel discussion and go on to a much more important one in Prague. But I had picked up no hints from all this nor had I been alerted by the rather cold dismissal we both received when she judged it time to return to the pousada as it was too hot and the conference bus was late again.
As the day wore on I felt worse. Dr. Citroen had swept out of the hall after the panel, having announced that Prague called. So I had no chance to seek any resolution with her. Ceú tried to comfort me, somewhat successfully, saying all the right things—which I can't now remember, except that they were right. By the end of the afternoon, a number of people had made laughing comments about la Citroen, who, it turned out, was famous for her unqualified enthusiasms for some few scholars and contemptuous dismissals of all the rest. My sin, I later learned, was that I had made some critical comments about the educational value of the theories of the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, with whom she had studied and whom she considered close to a divinity, recently departed from dwelling amongst us.
So far, my earlier doubts about coming on this trip had seemed well founded. I had mainly endured fear, abuse, and exhaustion, and would happily have paid the $500 to be allowed to return home now to chat about their day with the children. But I would have to grind on for the remaining two days and their alien activities.
The conference organizers arranged trips for us after the day's panel and papers. We were bused up to the beautiful hill town of Marvão. High above the surrounding plain and deep valleys, the early evening was so cold that I was shivering while we waited outside the small stone church. The local choir sang for us, mostly in English, with haunting perfection. I sat with Cassie in the draped pew at the front. We were both unaccustomed to being the celebrities for whom such a performance had been prepared for months beforehand. Royalty, Presidents, and Prime Ministers no doubt take such things for granted, but poor academics who don't get out much find it hard to know quite how to respond, or indeed how to fill the space that such honor seems to require.
For 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 own large neighbor to the east.) Afterwards 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 across those mountains was silk, and its wealth built towns like Portalegre and its carpet industry on the road down to Lisbon and the sea routes to the west.
Hard to stand in the stone turrets looking across the windswept landscape and not imagine what would have been in the minds of the young men long ago who defended their frontier against the hated Spaniards. Mostly what is in most young men's minds, I suppose. But what image of the world did they hold? The Portuguese soldiers and their troubles and loyalties are now ashes hereabout, part of the land they defended. The large Englishwoman with whom I had shared the inadequately sized car seat joined me, and the inadequately sized guard post imposed an intimacy that required great delicacy of movement not to become excessive.
We came out together and strolled along the wall of the fortress, where those young men had patrolled some years before. She was clad in gossamer layers of pastel, looking cool and cheerful, moving with an easy grace that one might not have expected. Her passion, it seems, was ballroom dancing, and she also wrote poetry, having had two volumes published. She was carrying a copy of José Saramago's History of the Siege of Lisbon, which, she suggested, recreates perhaps as well as is now possible the images of the world held here by the young men whose footsteps we were repeating. She said Saramago ought to get the Nobel Prize for literature, which he later did. Céu recommended that I start with his Balthasar and Blimunda. He creates for the reader a strange and slightly disturbing angle of vision on the world, where magic and horror coexist in a curiously buoyant tangle. Each of his novels has the quality of leaving you just a little more hopeful about our odd human adventure.
Below us, moving quickly across the grass inside the castle walls, a number of the organizers were hurriedly trying to round everyone up. Clearly the switch had occurred from casual infinities of time stretching before us to the realization that there was now no way we could get back to Portalegre in time for the dinner that had been booked in one of the restaurants. Indeed, it seemed that someone had calculated that the utmost speed now would have us about an hour late, and frantic calls were being made to the restaurant to do what they could to hold back the food, or keep it warm.
During dinner our hosts spoke English out of courtesy. This clearly inhibited their usual conversational exuberance, and as they struggled to make their points––stumbling phrases clearly unable to keep up with their thoughts––they would take quick refuge in Portuguese. This licensed the others, and their hesitant English gave way to a torrent of linguistic fluency, till someone pointed out that the guests were excluded, and the torrent slowed again to an impeded crawl.
The noisy table exuded kindness, good cheer, and charm. My sense of this was owed in part to Ceú. Despite whatever organizational catastrophes we faced during the day, she seemed, if not imperturbable, perturbed in an entirely cheerful way. A ready smile, that was like the Portuguese sunshine but more refreshing, greeted whoever she turned to. I learned that she had taken a Masters degree in Education at Boston, as had a cohort of sixty others. After the end of Salazar's dictatorship, the country had begun to shake itself, and to try to catch up with the outside world. Professional training in various fields was paid for by the state. An arrangement was made with Boston University to train a cohort of the most promising faculty in the Education colleges. They were known in Portuguese Education circles as the Bostonians. Now the group had been back in Portugal a few years, and many of them were beginning to look around for Ph.D. programs. Some had already gone back to Boston, and some to Britain. Ceú and I began a conversation in the restaurant that we continued for some years, during which she brought her sunshine smile and sharp mind to my home university where she completed an outstanding Ph.D. thesis, now a book. So this is a reason to travel. A new friend has become an old friend, our families have spent happy times together. And I had looked for reasons not to come.
Late that evening we attended a performance back in the college hall by a group of young people who had been resuscitating local folk songs, and who had been unsurprised that we arrived two hours late for their performance. The lead female and male singers had pure and strong voices, bringing back to life with wit and energy the kinds of songs and rhythms that could have been heard, with local variations, in almost any peasant society anywhere in Europe a few hundred years ago. They accompanied their voices with a wide one-handed drum and a stringed instrument like a simple guitar.
By the end of the performance, which was to have concluded at ten o'clock, we were already into the next day. I was sagging, jet-lagged and unslept. I dozed off during the late night drive back to the pousada, whose confessional and bed I had almost given up seeing again. Foolishly I set my alarm to be breakfasted and ready for the promised time of morning pick-up, not yet attuned to Portuguese time and the reliable lateness of the bus.
The following morning we were taken to another small town and sat on rows of metal chairs in the largest room of the hotel for the first papers, though resigned first to listen politely to the mayor. He appeared on the stage, a square man of medium size, with black hair and dark eyes for which the term "piercing" could have been invented. He began by indicating a group of local artisans gathered at the door, and we were told––it was unnecessary to speak the language to understand––that their goods would be for sale outside through the morning. Ceú was acting as my translator, and she smiled sympathetically as he began to discuss plans for the town. She stopped translating after a few minutes, and the audience fell still and silent. Even to us foreigners, the mayor's subdued passion stunned with its intensity. He began hesitantly, stutteringly, then spoke rapidly and quietly, one hand occasionally rising then flashing across his body and down in a gesture that was dramatic and disturbing, almost threatening. A hand sometimes rose slowly, and a thrusting finger powerfully snapped home his point. It was mesmerizing. The square muscular body moved in sudden jerks, almost convulsively. I suddenly recalled where I had seen something like this before. Leni Reifestahl's Triumph of the Will, and Hitler's Nazi rally speeches. No doubt this communist mayor would not have been flattered by the comparison, but as he came to a sudden stop and decisively strode from the stage, it was hard not to realize that we had been in the presence of a great orator and formidable person. One could only wonder, and perhaps fear, what he might have become elsewhere with other opportunities; "Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed." But, then, isn't that true for all of us? Who knows what saints or monster we might have become in other circumstances.
I sat through the first paper in Portuguese, and understood nothing, despite the best efforts of the young man who had taken over as my translator. I was tired, and decided that I would skip the next paper, which was also to be in Portuguese. I wandered past the artisans, who were chatting desultorily in a group, waiting for the rush when the paper ended. I was allowed to pass unmolested. In the long lobby to the hotel, Cassie and Bob sat in silence, the latter with a serious scotch cupped in one large hand and a cigarette in the other, carried constantly to his mouth for deep sucking inhalations. Portuguese hotels allowed him to smoke indoors, like a lost indulgence from some golden age. Bob seemed uninterested in conversation––the scotch clearly having been not his first––and Cassie was leaning back in her chair with closed eyes, having had little sleep the previous two nights, she said.
Since our car ride from the airport, I had spoken with Bob only briefly on a couple of occasions. He was generally unresponsive, making small effort even to react to a joke. He had been one of the people involved in organizing the program for the "Bostonians" and then supervising a number of their Masters theses. He seemed disdainful of the proceedings. In medieval monasteries, a condition that was cause for much concern was "anomie"––in which life becomes weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. Bob seemed a victim of a related condition whose symptoms one sees quite commonly in professors past fifty. They began their careers with ambition and expectations of academic fame. In Education, in North America, they often see themselves as a resurrection of John Dewey, bestriding the educational world like a colossus. Hope tangles with unkind reality during their forties, and by the end of that decade it has become clear that their dreams are not going to be realized. Sometimes––quite commonly––this failure is put down to the stupidity of their colleagues. The result is corridors of older professors going through the motions, many bitter, some depressed, all beaten down, calculating how soon they can afford to go for early retirement. They may be indulged as harmless "old farts" by their younger colleagues, bustling unknowingly towards their own battle of hope with unrelenting reality. Bob seemed a classic, if unusually depressive, case. They say that alcoholism is the only disease that tells you you haven't got it, and nicotine addiction is the only disease that tells you you would be worse off without it.
After some minutes of desultory conversation, with Cassie unable to keep her eyes open, I wandered outside. I left the hotel's air conditioning and ambled into the late morning oven. Ahead was what I'd call a wide square, except that it had buildings on only three sides. The side behind me was filled with the modern hotel, to the left were what looked like nineteenth-century municipal buildings, of a light beige stone that blended too easily with the sand-strewn road and pavements, and perhaps fifty meters ahead was a church. To the right the wide square narrowed into a road with smaller buildings spaced along it seemingly at random. There was some kind of park at the end of the hotel that encroached onto the square, squeezing it down toward the road to my right. The only movement was of an old man leading a donkey across a sandy patch between two rows of small, dispirited trees. We looked at each other for a minute. I nodded; he didn't. I was dressed in a jacket with a tie, creased trousers, smooth leather shoes. I was clearly mad.
After lunch we visited the oldest synagogue in Portugal, used in late medieval times by Jews expelled from Spain, before they were also expelled from Portugal. In the cramped dark synagogue and nearby low houses, one could feel the ghostly residue of a distinct cultural life, carried on somewhat furtively against the gross prejudices of their Catholic neighbors.
The winding narrow streets of the old town were richly satisfying to the eye, with colorful Gothic doorways and tiled entries, and to the ear, with caged finches singing everywhere. While the ear might have been pleased, the heart could only be distressed. No doubt someone has said something sentimental, inaccurate, but yet in some sense true, like––while something is caged, we are all caged. But perhaps the finches pitied us, trudging heavy-legged up this street without any song at all, just low croaking. No doubt they notice that human children sing for a while, whistle back up at them as they go into the houses, as one small boy did as we passed. (It is always a surprise that ideally picturesque places that seem to belong to tourists are also parts of the everyday routines of families.) But the anthropologists among the birds must have noticed that we stop singing and whistling early in our lives, and perhaps they might pity us with good reason. Their songs make the finches seem intoxicated with indescribable happiness, some small hint of which rubs off on us as we pass.
The last day of the conference was in Portalegre, whose old church and handsome buildings we had so far seen only late at night and during our first rushed morning. Natercio, the head of the college, strode up the steps with his jacket loose over his shoulders. I noticed many of the Portuguese men retained the formality that jackets give, but kept their arms outside the jacket's armholes. This did leave one open to the threat of a quick breeze tossing the jacket into the dust, but also allowed the benefit of the same breeze getting at the armpits. I had slept well, and realized that I was feeling regret that this was to be the last day. I gave a final paper, which Ceú translated into a great success—perhaps some of the applause was an attempt to compensate for la Citroen's earlier response. The lengthy questions required only brief replies—I had learned by now that the question not the answer was the point.
Bob had left that morning for a flight back to Boston. Cassie and I, having spent breakfasts and lunches chatting, and increasingly concluding we might better explore the neighborhood outside while Portuguese papers were being read, had become firm friends. She was going to send me her books of poems in exchange for my drearier books about education. Ceú and Natercio were invariably warm and gracious. In moments of tiredness, I felt bemusedly sure that I had known them for years. How could I have met them for the first time only days ago? They took up too prominent a space in the gallery of the mind we keep for friends. And all the familiar faces as people came out after the papers, the easy smiles, the lightly clad women, the dark and energetic men.
Going up the broad stairs to my room in the pousada, my eye was attracted by movement down the end of the corridor to the right. It was generously proportioned, high ceilinged and broad as a small street, with a dark oak floor and a rich red patterned strip of carpet down its middle. Someone had come out of one of the end rooms, which I had learned was still the family quarters. A young woman was pushing an old woman in a wheelchair, a child walking solemnly alongside, holding one of the wheelchair's arms. As I opened my door, the women and child looked round. Perhaps I only imagined resentment in their eyes, but they turned quickly away from the stranger entering what may once have been the room of a sister, brother, or aunt.
At the end of the conference, we were invited to a celebration outside a restaurant on a hill-top. Under wide-spreading trees, we had a peasant feast, then 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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