Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On the Loose in Lusitania

It is back to travelblog mode, I fear. Luke and I are in Lisbon, both of us for the first time, and we find ourselves happily surrounded by numerous inviting possibilities, all of which seem distinctly more attractive than battling with our hotel’s Wi-Fi arrangements or simply tapping on computer keys when we could instead be sampling tapas in one of the delightful little dives in one of the delightful neighborhoods we have been exploring.

We arrived here on Monday night after a less than satisfactory experience with Air France. We were about two hours late in leaving Paris for no good aeronautical reason, so far as I could tell, but because of unexplained difficulties in securing a transit bus to drive us from the alleged boarding gate to the waiting airplane a kilometer away or so. There were several cheerful Air France staff on hand, but none seemed willing to notice the problem, let alone claim ownership of it. Here was yet another proof, as though we needed one, that our lives are controlled by capricious and mysterious powers working through opaque and uncommunicative bureaucracies—a kind of cosmic Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. All that, however, passed into oblivion, the moment we landed in this charming city: charming, but I must also add, rather wet. It’s been raining pretty steadily for the past two days.

12 January 2010: one solitary sodden scholar on the Praça Luis de Camoes

Luke had been worried that his Brazilian Portuguese would prove inadequate for the Portuguese capital, or expose the rusticity of a country bumpkin. Far from it. In the first place the city is crawling with Brazilians. In the second the attitude of Portugal to its vast American former colony seems entirely different from that of England to hers. Everything positive about Portuguese culture is “Luso-Brazilian”. You have Luso-Brazilian literature, Luso-Brazilian music, Luso-Brazilian food. Try to imagine how well an “Anglo-American” restaurant would do in Paris or Perugia. So Luke has proved a wizard interpreter.

That’s a good thing for me. For although I am hard at work on the classical Portuguese author, Luis de Camões, I wouldn’t get very far if I had to get somebody to change a light bulb or explain to me how the little green tickets for the subways work. The relationship between the phonology and the orthography of Portuguese is so distant and suspicious that “book learning” is but a first hesitant baby-step toward communication. This reminds me of a notable occasion in the past when Portuguese orthography was my friend. Many years ago I began giving my wife a Victorian shell cameo every year or two. This was in the early days of eBay, when it still had some pretentions to being an auction before its collapse in the direction of a bad dollar store. One occasionally found good cameos there. It was about the same time that I was trying to put together a small library of Camoniana—i.e., books by or about Luis de Camões. One day my search for Camões items turned up a stunning mythological cameo, one of several camoes offered by this particular seller. It is a signal advantage for a bidder on such items to be competing against dyslexics rather than aesthetes. I got the piece for a song—or perhaps I should say canto.

Yesterday’s tours of the bookshops turned up only books, but some of them dandies. I got Jorge de Sena’s three collected volumes of Camoniana. There is also a signed copy of Vasco Graça Moura’s Camões e a divina proporção. These are treasures, as I am sure you realize, beyond the dreams of cupidity.

Aside from books, museums, ecclesiastical architecture, and the waterlogged streets, we have been taking in a certain amount of Portuguese alimentation. One notices both its very high quality and, when compared with its Parisian analogues, its very low price. Luke is a vegetarian, but the concept of a lunch without at least a smattering of meat strikes your average Portuguese short-order cook as deeply immoral at the minimum, and probably illegal. As a temporary Parisian who drinks no wine, I can share through fellow feeling the sense of social stigma and opprobrium that greets his every order. You feel guilty of some culinary desecration or kitchen crime. Still, we soldier on.