Portugal used to be an empire, a pioneer of colonization forging its way beyond Europe and spreading its power across the globe to India, Mozambique, Zanzibar, parts of East Africa and Brazil. Ruling remote parts of the world from the 15th to the late 19th century, Portugal was then a small country with a big ego whose people went out and acquired a lot of power and wealth.
But then, times change, the reins of power change hands, and, as was the case with other empires, Portugal eventually lost its influence and retired its grasp on the colonies.
The 20th century has not been kind on Portugal, and, though preserving some vestiges reminding one of the country’s former glory days, Portugal has, sadly, descended into being one of the poorer, more modest European Community member nations at the moment.
In fact, Portugal has had a few bad hundreds of years, and it shows. Once the European noble, it is now bourgeois but poor. Modern Lisbon, for instance, is a charming city, but no longer impressive. The charm rests in the faded old buildings and the vestiges of yesteryear, or in those monuments commemorating the country’s great explorer days. Once out of the confines of Lisbon proper, the suburbs look depressing, brimming, as they are with side-by-side communist-looking buildings or abandoned little houses. Passing through, one can sense that people are struggling economically. The modern features about Lisbon, such as the good roads and the up to date and very efficient transportation system, are, I suspect, all new post-European Community adherence investments, i.e., paid for with the resentful Germans’ Euro.
In a way, it’s sad, but it’s not unexpected, out of order, or surprising. It is life: as people are born, grow up, live, thrive, get old and die, so do empires. Europe is a living cemetery for these and examples abound: Greece is but a ghost of the ancient Greek civilization, and Italy, much as I love it, is but far away from the Roman Empire days.
As for society, the older generations of Portuguese appear typical Mediterranean in many ways: somewhat old fashioned, family oriented, loving a good meal, a good song and party, not terribly efficient and not exactly driven. Old ladies dressed in black can be seen walking around Lisbon unhurriedly, speaking to a still quite traditional Mediterranean society, where until recently a woman’s journey included marriage, producing children, and living as a mourning widow for half her life. Old men, on the other hand, collectively enjoy lazy afternoons in the public squares, talking to friends, drinking a bit (or more), playing at the remainder if their lives in an untroubled way. Younger generations wear jeans, T-shirts and skimpy tops, yet appear to pair up early and have kids quite young. Overall, there is no sign of a dramatic break with the old traditions and way of life, no whiff of rebelling agains the old ways, no austere feminism or metrosexual trend in sight.
However, one gets the feeling that the younger Portuguese want to get on with life and forge their own identity despite their current hardships. Those who can are going out to get jobs in Germany, UK, or wherever jobs are available. For those who choose to stay home, tourism is nowadays a major source of EC money and the locals appear to have adapted to this reality: in Lisbon, almost everyone in customer service jobs speaks surprisingly good English. And some German. And some French. They milk tourists kindly and politely but efficiently, and have some good political skills to do it.
For example, with the Football championships currently ongoing, most restaurants have put up a TV on their patios. This means that in the evening each restaurant houses a mini-war in progress. Different tables, different favourites, so what is the staff to do!? Which side to take!? Here’s an example, from the restaurant downstairs: the other night England was playing Uruguay. A few tables outside had English customers, while a few more tables inside had Spanish/French/Portuguese customers. An English guy asks the waiter: “who do you want to win?” The waiter says: “England, of course! I am siding with Europeans, so since Portugal is out, I would hope another European team will win”. OK. A few hours later England had lost, and the poor drunk Englishmen at the table left the restaurant. Now here come out the Latin supporters (I.e., Spanish /French/Portuguese) from inside the restaurant screaming “Uruguay! Uruguay!”. So, guess what the waiter is doing next? Screaming alongside the customers “Uruguay! Uruguay!”. Sod the Europeans, let’s be happy for the winners. I am sure he got a good tip (along with laryngitis) and while this may not give him a lot of integrity, it gives him an edge in the race for survival.
And if this is anything to go by, I think Portugal will survive this recession. Who knows, in a few years, with a new generation of younger Portuguese fluent in multiple languages and educated abroad, the country might eventually even bounce back from the current ‘poor man of Europe’ status and succeed in beating the Northern Europeans at their own game.
Overall, what I really admired about the Portuguese is their realism. The Empire is long dead and Portugal is now struggling economically, so there’s no point in putting on airs. Tourists may be dressing badly and talking loudly but they pay, so treat them well enough to get them to return. They’re on holiday, having fun, so why not return their smile? Providing good customer service does not humiliate and demean one’s worth as an individual.
Perhaps I would be less excited about these things if I were not on a plane going back to the centre of tourist-loathing, the one and only Paris, where the vast majority, especially those in customer service, view any poor tourist as a bug that is not worthy of breathing the rarified air of the French Capital.
Aahhh, to come home 🙂
2 thoughts on “Portugal in review: a former empire with no airs”
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