Portugal, May 2014

For Rita’s great pictures of Portugal, try this link:



Lisbon is a smashingly beautiful city, situated on hills overlooking a bay that feeds out to the Atlantic Ocean. It is often compared to San Francisco because of all the hills and little funiculars will take you up many of the hills for 3.20 Euros each (about $4.) It is indeed a strategic location that has been occupied since about 700 B.C., according to an exhibit at the Sao Jorge Castle. These Iron Age people traded widely in the Mediterranean. This is one of the most fascinating things (to me) about Lisbon. It has so many layers of history, including the Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Napoleon, etc. As the furthermost southwest country in Europe, protruding out into the Atlantic, as it were, it was the first European country to figure out how to sail around Africa and tap the riches of Asia. Remember the names you learned, and then forgot, in high school–Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan.

It’s obvious, however, that the city and country have suffered as a result of the fiscal austerity that has been imposed on it and other southern European countries by the power of the Germans and northern Europeans. The northerners lent too much money, creating a hot money bubble, and now they want to be repaid, but the money doesn’t seem to exist. So the Portugese and others are having to cut deeply into their social fabric and government services. The Portugese are bitter about this–journalist Eugenio Alves told us that it was the southern Europeans who were the great civilizations–Portugal, Spain, Rome and Greece. But now the northerners possess the capital and economic clout to assert their vision of how Europe should be managed.

We stayed at the Tivoli Lisboa, which is one of the finest hotels in town, located on the Avenida da Liberdade. This tree-lined boulevard boasts all the latest fashion stores, but it also reveals the stresses and strains that have hit the country. On the equivalent of Portugal’s Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue combined, we see homeless people camped out in doorsteps of empty buildings. There are other buildings that seem to have been abandoned and graffiti has been sprayed on them. It’s often beautiful graffiti because the Portugese have a great sense of style, but it still reveals a sense of despair and alienation. We see many policemen on foot, another sign that crime has been a concern.

At the same time, we see an elite class of Portugese who are driving Ferrari’s and Porsches, wearing great clothes and sporting the latest sunglasses (or so Rita tells me–my own sense of style is limited in this department). So it seems there has been a stratification in Portugese society, much like what you see in New York City. There are lots of signs advertising real estate for sale. They are in multiple languages, including Chinese. In fact, on the street I overheard a Chinese saying to a real estate agent “in a few years.” The implication is that real estate values are depressed now, but if we just wait, they will come back. That is a very Chinese view. They love buying at the bottom. The fact that the Chinese are buying real estate in Lisbon really tells you something–the world order that prevailed for centuries is being overturned. The Chinese, for example, purchased the national electricity company, beating out the Germans.

The Portugese language is very interesting. It’s almost like it is a non-romance language because of all the H sounds. Lisboa becomes Lish-boa, for example. The difficulty of understanding the language seems to be a weapon. The Portugese can understand the Spanish, who are much more dominant on the Iberian Peninsula, but the Spanish can’t understand Portugese. A surprising number of Portugese, at least those connected to the tourist industry, speak English. It seems that the English have helped Portugal over the course of the centuries, including fighting Napoleon, so the Portugese do not look at the English as a conquering force, but rather as allies against other dominant European powers. Between Rita’s Spanish and my French, we were almost always able to communicate. At one restaurant, I tried the French “moutarde” to get mustard, but that didn’t translate. Then I said “mustard” and the waiter got that right away.

The food, by the way, is great with lots of fine fish. We had a brilliant meal at the Journalists’ Club of Lisbon, which is affiliated with the Overseas Press Club in New York.  We’ve also had a little of their famous port. On two occasions, we went to hear the famous Portugese music called fado. The first night, it was at a family run restaurant set in old Roman ruins with the arched ceilings. The same people who are waiting on you suddenly erupt in very soulful and mournful song. A second night, we went to a performance with mostly French tourists in attendance. It seems the music is about a sense of suffering and beauty, all wrapped together.

One of my favorite places was the National Museum of Ancient Art. As I said, the Portugese were among the first Europeans to establish a colonial empire and they were everywhere: Brazil, Africa, Goa and Cochin in India, Malacca in Malaysia, Macau on the coast of China. At the museum, we saw the gold jewelry that the Portugese brought back from Goa. What amazing wealth.

I’ve seen Portugese colonies in Macau, off the coast of China, and in Malacca, on the west coast of Malaysia. The Portugese seem to have engaged deeply with their colonies, imparting language, religion, cuisine and intermarriages. The British, in contrast, seem to have built infrastructures and legal systems but didn’t want to commingle their juices with the locals. The Portugese were in Japan in the year 1600. The Japanese say “arigato” for thank you. The Portugese say “obrigado.” The Japanese borrowed the word.

We also went to the national botanical garden and seen a stunning variety of trees, many of them endangered, from around the world. They even had a few plants left over from Jurassic Park days. The fact that all these plants are here is another indication that this is clearly one of the world’s great crossroads and I/we had never thought of it in that way.

It’s been widely reported in the newspapers that Portugal has emerged from its bailout program, meaning it will no longer rely on extra payments by other European governments and will try to make it on its own. That’s positive news, of course, but longer term, I don’t see how the Portugese can reclaim their greatness. The definition of how wealth is created has changed.

They have no diamonds, no oil. Their industries seem to be based on fishing, wine, olive oil, clothing, handicrafts, porcelains, and the like. They don’t have a semiconductor industry. They don’t own their own car companies. (We drove a Renault down to the Algarve.) Tourism is another major piece of their economy and they are dependent on foreigners to come in and buy real estate. In the south, the British are everywhere and seem to be a mainstay of the southern Portugese economy in particular.

But to generate real wealth these days, countries need to occupy strategic technology areas. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore have all done that. So have the Germans and the Dutch and the Swiss. The Americans obviously have done some of that, but not nearly enough. But my point is that the Portugese had one economic model that was dominant for many years–colonialism. But they never seem to have built the next economic model that will generate wealth. I think the same is true of Spain, southern Italy and Greece. The Northern Italians have figured it out. Until the Portugese can make a transition to this new model, they are going to be dependent on the mercies of foreigners for a long time to come.

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