Portugal is the Land that Europe Forgot. I’m thinking of writing a letter to the country’s tourism minister saying just that; it should be part of the country’s tourist campaign. It’s funny how peeling paint on buildings, crumbled walls and sleeping dogs can have such an unmistakeable appeal.
My memories of Portugal consist of these such things. Alas, it seems as if the country likes to formally present itself in a different way; to Brits and Germans, it’s all things sand and sun. Call me morbid, but all that Portugal plus beach equals to me is Madeleine McCann.
But back to the peeling paint. My first experience of Portugal was the journey from Lisbon’s train station, where I’d just gotten off an overnight train from Madrid, to my hostel. Of course, the route was a lot easier than the random wanderings I took instead.
The picture above is the scene which greeted me outside the station. It was perhaps eight in the morning, and these four men were sitting outside a little cafe, sipping espresso. At the time, I saw espresso as quintessentially European. It wasn’t something I’d ever ordered at home, and I didn’t understand how people could socialise over such a small beverage. These men changed this perception of mine.
In my three days in Lisbon, I walked past this little cafe perhaps a dozen times, heading to and from my hostel. These four men were always there, day and night. The only thing that changed was that later in the day, their espressos were replaced by beers.
You can probably find an establishment like this just about anywhere in Mediterranean Europe. It actually took me a little while to build up the courage to enter one, and mumble a coffee order. These places, to me, looked like private homes. Entering one, I reasoned, ran the risk of interrupting their intense and loud conversations.
These men looked as if they had all the time in the world. They probably did, as who knows what they’d collectively seen in their lives. No wonder they never seemed to draw breath; the stories they’d built up over the years demanded to be shared.
Portugal saddened me quite a bit when I was there. The poverty was quite visible and their cities clearly immortalised a former great empire. But now, the country is that forgotten little corner of Europe. Recently I saw a documentary explaining how young Portuguese are flocking to their former colonies of Brazil and Angola in their thousands. They can’t even get the headlines that Greece attracts daily. It’s as if they’re just not there.
Perhaps that’s been discussed by these four men. Maybe, maybe not.