Ten Things I (Re)Learned in Portugal
New perspectives make great souvenirs
A few weeks ago, my wife and I went on a belated honeymoon to Portugal: we spent two weeks in Lisbon, Porto, São Miguel, and Terceira. Neither of us had been there before, and it was the first time we’d been out of the country at all since the start of the pandemic. So in addition to being tremendous fun, the trip inspired a lot of reflection on the perspective shift that comes with experiencing a new culture.
None of the thoughts we’ve discussed are novel ideas, or even things that we didn’t know to varying degrees before. But what’s the point of going to different places if not to broaden your horizons, or of having a Substack if not to pontificate on things regardless of their newsworthiness?
So without further ado…
Relaxing is important
I’d never taken a vacation this long before; I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to again. I had also never experienced the cliché feeling of coming back from a trip and feeling relaxed and restored. It turns out those two things were probably related.
After we got back and I had time to rebound from the jet lag, I felt legitimately recharged. I woke up that Monday morning an hour before my alarm. When I logged on for work — after taking my dog on an extra-long walk and making a coffee run for a neighbor — I felt more energetic than I had since my first day on the job. I didn’t feel stifled by a return to my routine, I was earnestly craving it. It’s an incredible privilege to experience that feeling, but in a better world, it wouldn’t be.
History needn’t be sequestered
I live in what might be the most history-dense city in the United States. Philadelphia sprouted around its monuments and landmarks — it’s a 20-minute walk from my apartment to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Yet the city is structured such that a tourist could see most of the historical sights without spending any time in a residential neighborhood. Sure, there are some high-rise condos near City Hall, and you’ll share the subway with some locals on your way around town, but you could easily fill a weekend in town without leaving the commercial districts. On the rare occasions when tour groups walk down our block, I assume they are lost.
Like much of Western Europe (and maybe other parts of the world too; I can speak only to where I’ve been), the major cities of Portugal are built very differently. Due to how old the urban centers are, the fact that structures remained functional for so much longer before they became monuments, and probably a myriad of other reasons that people who’ve thought more about this than I have could speak to, normal life blends into the history in a way that it doesn’t in America. We saw clotheslines over ancient cobblestone streets, walked through people’s driveways en route from one 16th-century monument to another, and recognized the soft glow of a Macbook in a cottage window beneath a millennium-old fortress wall. It’s a different way of honoring the history, and it feels like a more-genuine one.
History varies across places…
In 1755, a cataclysmic earthquake struck off the coast of Portugal. If the seismological event weren’t destructive enough, it also started massive fires and produced tsunamis so powerful that the effects were felt across the Atlantic. The figurative aftershocks still echo today. Neighborhoods in Lisbon are defined by whether they predate the disaster or were rebuilt later; how the surviving historic landmarks escaped devastation became part of their cultural significance. Based on how people talk about it nearly three centuries later, the earthquake — more than any milestone of exploration or colonization, political revolution, or even occasion of national independence or unification — seems like the most-significant event in Portuguese history.
And yet, until a couple weeks before our trip, I had never heard of it. Maybe this is a me problem, and my readers are all well-versed on the subject. But even knowing how history gets filtered in American culture and education, it’s humbling to realize you didn’t know about such a literally and figuratively world-shaking event. Especially since it happened to one of the Western European powers with disproportionate prominence in our zeitgeist.
What else don’t we know that might surprise us? What knowledge does each of us falsely assume is foundational for others?
There’s nothing novel about reevaluating narratives of the past as social understandings evolve, but Portugal is a lot more self-aware of this than America. Tour guides casually acknowledge the horrors of Portuguese colonization without equivocating about casting national heroes in an unflattering light. Biographical descriptions of statesmen entombed in the National Pantheon — buried before the fascist Estado Novo government was overthrown, but written afterwards — are not concerned about protecting the reputations of the deceased. In the grand church at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a piece of 19th-century art is described as imitating what was then understood as classical 16th-century style, implying that our definition of a 500-year-old visual genre is different now than when the same works were meticulously studied 200 years ago. It’s a more-dynamic conception of history than we’re used to at home.
Cities don’t have to be car-centric
Maybe it’s a function of the narrower, windier streets, built long before the days of Henry Ford. Maybe it’s because of the high-quality public transportation. Maybe it’s just that the pace of life is a little more relaxed, and things in the city are closer together. Whatever the case, cars are second-class citizens on the cobblestone streets of Lisbon and Porto. It turns out prioritizing pedestrians makes for urban centers that are quieter, are more-pleasant to walk around, and feel a whole lot safer than the equivalent neighborhoods here at home. And at least for a few days, we didn’t miss cars — the only times we took a cab in either city were to catch an early flight or train.
Public investment makes a tangible difference…
It’s no secret that American cities lag behind many of their international counterparts in terms of publicly funded amenities. We (or at least our politicians) have different ideas about the role of government in shaping municipal environments. But even as someone who generally supports increased community infrastructure, it’s easy for such advocacy to feel abstract if you haven’t experienced it in a while.
Everywhere you look in Libson, you see the impact of greater public investment. Open-air plazas amidst the busiest parts of the city. Public bathrooms in neighborhood parks. Benches designed for comfort, not as anti-homeless architecture. Convenient and reliable (at least in our experience) public transit. There are even free escalators and elevators built into the streets to make the imposing hills more pedestrian-accessible. Surely it’s not a perfect system, but it would be nice to live in a city designed more-thoughtfully for its people.
…as does trust in public-health agencies
One thing that surprised me about visiting Portugal in the midst of a pandemic was how few people were wearing masks. We chose to honeymoon in Portugal in part because it was one of the most-vaccinated countries in the world, so we were surprised to see that cautious attitude didn’t also apply to face-coverings. In restaurants and stores, hotels and museums, we often found ourselves in crowded indoor spaces in which we were the only people with masks on.
The reason turned out to be simple: two days before we arrived, government had said they didn’t need to.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the vicious cycle of legitimate negligence and bad-faith misinformation that has eroded Americans’ trust in our public-health institutions. Declining to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is a symptom of this phenomenon, and one that I vehemently disagree with. But I generally wear a face-covering voluntarily in indoor public spaces because I don’t believe that the lack of a mask mandate is based on positivity rates instead of politics. If I were following the CDC’s guidance, I would be back on my normal routine by now, 13 days after my COVID symptoms started — yet given that I’m still testing positive on antigen tests, I think my skepticism has been validated. I don’t think taking more precautions than the government deems necessary is morally equivalent to refusing to participate in lessening the risk to your community, but they are admittedly two sides of the same coin of distrust.
In Portugal, public-health institutions seem to have a lot more credibility. It’s not that the bare-faced Portuguese people we spent time with were opposed to masking. On public transportation and on airplanes, where face-coverings were still mandatory, passengers were generally compliant, and most of those who weren’t were obvious tourists. In pharmacies, staff are impressively assertive in insisting that customers adhere to the remaining face-covering requirements. When people there would tell us that our masks were unnecessary, they didn’t sound judgmental of our choice to wear them, but rather excited to inform us that it was now safe to go without them. As an American, the baseline expectation of people abiding by government guidelines — for both adopting and loosening safety protocols — feels like a foreign concept.
The internet ruined spontaneity
Once upon a time, going to a new place meant not knowing what you would do for your meals. You might have heard of a good restaurant in a guidebook or gotten a recommendation from someone who’d been there, but if not? You’d stroll through town, stop at a place that catches your eye, and hope you stumble into a hidden gem. Fast-forward to the modern day, when we got off the train in an idyllic Iberian village and I reflexively pulled out my phone to see which of the cute cafés in front of us served the highest-rated breakfast. (For the record, the reviews were right: The pastries were so good that we bought an extra one for the road.)
Obviously there are benefits of our brave new world — namely, your odds of finding great food are better when you can read crowdsourced ratings ahead of time. I’m certainly an eager participant in this process. Before our trip, I made an exhaustive list of potential meals by cross-referencing travel sites’ restaurant reviews and locals’ rankings of each city’s delicacies. Now that I’m back, I’m writing up my favorite places on my foodie Instagram page, and I’m planning to post full trip recaps as a reference for friends who might want Portugal travel tips. But surely there are downsides to our collective obsession with online ratings: overcrowding at top-ranked restaurants, secret spots becoming public knowledge, negative comments hurting a small business (one of the reasons I almost never post a bad review).
I don’t regret the extensive planning process that — if I may pat myself on the back — led us to some of the best meals we’ve ever had, from a fancy steak in an historic palace to a sandwich on the sidewalk. But they probably would have tasted even a little bit better if we had found them by accident.
Everyone speaks English
A strange thought occurred to me one night in Lisbon: If you are in a touristy area — and much as you may fancy yourself doing as the Romans do, you probably are — the person next to you is probably more likely to speak English than Portuguese. That’s not a commentary on the obnoxiousness of American travelers, but a reflection of its status as the lingua franca. Given how many Portuguese locals speak English, and how many tourists from other countries spoke better English than Portuguese, I truly believe “thank you” would get you farther than “obrigado.”
As déclassé as it sounds, speaking English actually made things easier for everyone. In Lisbon, restaurant staff usually clocked us as tourists immediately. They’d often look uneasy if we greeted them in hesitant Portuguese or held up two fingers to ask for a table, as if worried that we wouldn’t be able to communicate; and then be visibly relieved to hear us speak English and realize we could understand each other. Meanwhile, in Porto and the Açores, people are so used to tourists defaulting to English that simply saying bom dia when you walk into a café instead of hello I am an American and I want a coffee was enough to make several shopkeepers think we were locals. I still think it’s disrespectful to go to a new place and not make an effort to communicate on the natives’ terms (though there’s some irony in a onetime colonial power assimilating to a linguistic invasion), but it sure is useful that, if you’re reading this, you don’t have to.
Which is good perspective for you to consider…
The importance of empathy
To be clear, I am not remotely suggesting that anything we experienced on our trip was a hardship. We had nice places to stay, good health, and smooth travels across and around the Atlantic Ocean. Yet there’s something about being in another country, with a different rhythm of life, where the default language is one you don’t speak, that makes you feel out of place. It’s an eye-opening adventure if you have the right attitude. But it can be hard to shake the feeling that you’re not quite comfortable.
Now imagine that the stakes for fitting in are higher than thinking it’s cool to order in Portuguese at the bifana shop where the menu is also in English.
There are people in our neighborhoods and lives who might feel similarly unmoored. Maybe they don’t speak English well, and around here there aren’t many bilingual signs. Maybe they’re from another culture and don’t have an expat-acclimation bubble like the Americanized tourism industry to ease the transition. Maybe there’s something else that makes it hard to maintain the type of lifestyle and routine that our society expects of people. Or maybe they’re just an out-of-towner who hasn’t been briefed on the right way to order a cheesesteak. Whatever it may be, we should strive to treat other people with the same patience and compassion that you’d want extended to you when you’re looking for a currency exchange.
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