Sunday, 5 December 2010

Portuguese Diffidence

LISBON: If I had a nickel for every time a Portuguese at Expo 1998 asked me diffidently, what do you think of the Expo or what do you think of us, I could have covered all my expenses. Strangely, these are exactly the questions nineteenth century Americans posed to literary visitors from Europe. How are we doing? Do you like us? So perhaps this national tic comes from an awareness that they are just starting their experiment in democracy, coming on 25 years from their break from Salazar’s oppressive dictatorship.
My answer at first was I love the Expo; I wish I could have spent 50 instead of 5 days there. And I genuinely relish the ordinary Portuguese I have met cruising the Metro stations to take photos of their extraordinary narrative azulejos. On one especially distinguished wall-length panel in Restauradores station, celebrating 500 years of contact between Brazil and Portugal by a Sao Paolo artist, you have to look closely in the lower right hand corner to see a devil peeking out from behind all the solemn trappings of Empire puckishly displaying the first and fourth fingers in the international symbol for Bull Shit. Solemnity ironically perceived.
I would advise my new Portuguese friends to take to heart those merry fingers. If you worry too much about how people perceive you, you end up being scored for diffidence. Confidence feeds on itself. If ever a new democracy had reason to be proud of its silver anniversary next year, it’s Portugal.
If as a retired English professor I may be permitted to allude to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” how do I love Portugal? Let me count the ways.
I love her for her contemporary architecture. Until Oriente Station, I regarded Alvaro Siza’s work as the best man-made objects in Portugal. Now I give the nod to Santiago Calatrava’s brilliant inter-modal train station, which serves for the moment as the Gateway to Expo, but I predict after Expo will instruct the world in how to shift transportation patterns in a big old city.
Getting off the train in Porto (to relish some Siza before flying back to Paris) I fell into conversation with a civil engineer from the number two city. I told him I was here to savor the works of the number one architect of Portugal. “Don’t you agree he’s Number One?” “Up to a point,” was his engineer’s response. Perhaps I added, “He is the greatest architect working in Europe today.” “Oh, no. That’s surely Santiago Calatravel,” this suddenly uncivil engineer argued.
“And,” the engineer added more civilly, “his brilliance comes from being both an architect and an engineer.” His work has made my informant take the Porto Express many, many times, and he had watched with increasing joy the construction of Oriente Station as he passed through from Santa Apollonia.
He recalled that when Porto recently put on a Calatrava retrospective, he couldn’t get enough of it. He went back to enjoy, time after time. That is a confident Portuguese. Secure enough to like Siza with reservations, open-minded enough to accord the very best his regards, Portuguese or not. Here was a Euro-Mensch.
I loves those tiles. TAP was offering two (at 7500 $ each) on the flight from Paris—one a seagull, the other a caravel. Alas, there were no seagulls for sale on that flight, but I took the caravel home, happy in the awareness that I now partook in a small way in the great Portuguese tradition of the azulejos. I haven’t been able to visit the Tile Museum yet, but it’s at the top of my return agenda.
Across the Campo Grande from the SAS Radisson where I stayed in Lisbon is the small, unprepossessing looking Museu do Cidade. Luckily I ignored the dull façade and went inside. It provides a visual history of Lisbon from Neolithic times to our days. The medieval collection is particularly distinguished, but all of it is fine and instructive. I bought a guide to Lisboa (in Portuguese!) to go with the Portuguese / English dictionary I got at their Expo Pavilion.
I love their gardens. At the press credential building, I had the best visual dessert of my visit, after lunching in their canteen. Flowers and trees I had never seen before, deployed with panâche. So at the Museu do Cidade I went sauntering in their fine garden, only to discover serendipitously the White Pavilion, their new adjunct museum of contemporary art, with a stunning exhibition of the post-modernist work of Adriana Varejáo, “Trading Images,” in which she playfully teases and praises simultaneously the great azulejos tradition. She “paints” canvases of tiles, the better to deconstruct their meanings. One especially evocative oil on wood is “Bastard Son II” (1997) in which on the right a noble is unceremoniously fucking a black slave while in the rest of the canvas the trappings and canoodling of Empire go on in their unexamined, exploitative ways. An ugly open sore defaces the center of this canvas. This is evil redeemed, by repentance and confidence in a different and better, more humane future.
I love the way the Portuguese save things. A recent glorious example is the transformation of Cassiobrancho’s Orion movie theater in the Restauradores district into a four-star hotel with a Virgin Atlantic Megastore on the street level. Another Cassiobrancho favorite of mine is the Hotel Vittoria, now the Communist Party headquarters on the Avenida de Liberdade. I like to stop there on each visit because they sell the best and cheapest anthropological artifacts from all over the Third World as true and valuable souvenirs. It was naturally enough closed when I arrived at 06:45 on one of my early morning Metro sorties. A grizzled old janitor, clearly the veteran of many political actions and much hard work, told me to come back at 9 a.m.
Across the Avenida at the Hotel Sofitel I teased the clerk by saying I thought the Communists picking that prize for their contribution to the 1974 coalition ousting Salazar was the only intelligent thing the Communist Party had done in the twentieth century. The clerk looked non-plused, but finally answered, “I’m no Communist, but they have done many, many good things for Portugal.” It is inconceivable that, say, an American clerk at the Waldorf Astoria would speak so forthrightly, McCarthy Era or not.
Similarly, when I asked my porter at SAS Radisson why so many men pissed in the street at the new Metro station at Campo Grande, he replied without hesitation, “Because they’re pigs.” I relish such candor. No American porter would have told it so true.
How do I love Portugal? I could go on and on.
What I don’t like is the pervasive diffidence. You don’t like our little Expo, do you? Or you don’t admire the Portuguese people, do you?
Enough already. You’ve already earned the right to hold your heads up high. Ask us visitors questions about ourselves. Try to find out more about the differences in the modern world that you are already contributing so much to. Stop whining like Uriah Heeps. Anyone who doesn’t admire what you have achieved in the last 25 years is a certified nut. Ignore them.
Not that you’re perfect. On the train to Porto, there were two aristocratic-posing, elegantly-coiffed ladies in their sixties refusing to break up their little palaver party to lowlier passengers with reservations to their commandeered seats (the best kind with a table between them). Put pressure on these Salazar relics. Tell them their days of unearned perks are over. I would have told them this, except I can’t speak Portuguese, yet. They’re a drag on your growth, and a pain in the ass as well. Don’t put up with their fake lese majeste. Tell them to lose it. In public. Loudly.
And keep on amazing the world with your tremendous progress from a dark colonialist past. You’re already an inspiration to all of us. Like you. I love you, Portugal, except for the men pissing outside the Metro. And the aristocratic manqueés presuming the “Good Old Daze” haven’t ended.

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