An Introducation to Portugal

It’s been almost a month and a half since I was in Lisbon, so things are starting to fade into a giant mess of congealed memory. I am starting to think it’s one of those cities that is a conglomeration of past and present, local and international, familiar and unfamiliar. It’s a city that is enchanting, but at a distance. It looks at you, appraising you, determining whether it will let you in.

Having taken an overnight train, we woke up to the outskirts of Lisbon and a countryside landscape that felt very familiar to my own world of Southern California. Rolling hills in the background, glorious fields bursting into their spring glories only to fade into the dense plateaus of chaparral.

Lisbon, however, is one of those European cities where as an American, I wonder what happened to the idea of civic beauty and the ideal of creating a place that will be a monument to your heritage past and present. There was square after square with everything from Baroque to Art Deco architectural masterpieces. The people flocked around as if marble palaces and seafront terraces were commonplace. Look at us strange tourists taking pictures of the old trolleys! How droll we were!
Plaza near Rossio Station
And yet, Lisbon is another European city full of decay. Not quite as bad as Budapest when I was there in 2008, Lisbon has seen a multitude of catastrophes wreck havoc on the facade of their cityscape as well as their daily lives. There is a lurking, dark remembrance of dictator Salazar in the concrete towers, or “modern” apartments, strikingly similar to their Soviet counterparts. And it wasn’t until the talk of Portugal defaulting like Greece and Ireland that I realized the country’s status as a borderline “developing” country. (Portugal falls behind Italy, Spain, Greece, Slovenia and the Czech Republic in GDP per capita.)

Baroque Palace in Downtown Lisbon
And yet, Portugal is unlike Italy, where as much as Italians overtly talk about their pride in their heritage (one Italian I knew often told me that Italians did everything better–he once told me Italians cook in woks better than the Chinese ), everyone discusses their plans to one day leave. Several Sicilians told me they were going to leave to go to the North first chance they get, while I heard Northerners talk about their plans to eventual emigrate to the US or some other part of Europe. When I mentioned that I was from California to the Portuguese, the common response was that they would love to visit someday. Theirs was the longing of the exotic that California so often conjures up among Europeans (Hollywood, the beach, tans…), but they did not seem fazed by the hardships of Portugal.

Whether as a nation the Portuguese are disillusioned by their own country, people didn’t say. But there was something in their politeness and genuine talk of the love of their homeland that made me think this was a special place. But it wasn’t until we left Lisbon that we even found that.

Lisbon was a perfect tourist destination, but I felt it lacked a heart, or at least, it was one I couldn’t find.

Seafront Cafe, Lisbon

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