As a general rule, whenever I go to a foreign country for vacation, I start reading about the area several months in advance. I try to read at least one good traveler’s history, some novels set in that country, and one or two travel memoirs. This October, our vacation plans changed at the last minute. My wife and I found ourselves traveling unexpectedly to Portugal and by the time we boarded the plane, I had read only one rather dry traveler’s concise history. We had made several visits to the Spanish portion of the Iberian Peninsula, the most recent only last year, but we were quite surprised to learn that two countries so close together could be so different from each other.
We flew TAP, the Portuguese airline, and the flight was a portent for most of the trip, which felt like a journey back in time. Seat-belt fastened, I reached over to the pocket on the back of the seat in front of me for the in-flight magazine. To my surprise, I found something I had not seen in decades—an actual printed airline menu, listing the first course, a choice of two main courses, and the dessert. The projection system was not working, so there was no movie. All of the coach class restrooms were out of order except for one. The flight was full and we were packed in like Portuguese sardines. I was reminded of my first transatlantic flight on a Boeing 707 back in 1971. The only difference was the absence of a smoking section. We even landed on an open tarmac and had to take a bus ride to the terminal, just like the old days at JFK.
We waited close to an hour for our luggage to appear, and then headed for immigration which we breezed through. Our passports were quickly stamped with little examination. We waited for another half-hour, this time in a taxi line, and though overcharged by the driver were happy to arrive at our hotel which was right in the heart of Baixa, the central shopping district of Lisbon. We checked our bags, went out to explore the city and quickly realized that as Americans we knew very little about Portugal, the Portuguese language, and Portuguese culture. My wife is fluent in Spanish, so we expected to have little problem with the language. To our surprise, the majority of words are very different (Portuguese sounds like a blend of Spanish and French) and the Portuguese are more likely to understand English than Spanish.
To our delight, this was the Europe we remembered from our trip in the early 1970s. Unlike in Spain, there were few signs of the global economy, even in the center city. No McDonald’s, no Starbucks, no Pizza Hut, just narrow cobblestone streets with sidewalk cafés and coffee bars. Not a paper take-out coffee cup in sight. If you wanted a coffee, you had to sit down at a café or stand at a bar while you drank it. No Dunkin’ Donuts, just real traditional Portuguese breakfast pastries, and those crusty Portuguese rolls. Even the internet cafés so ubiquitous in most of Western Europe were uncommon here.
After a leisurely breakfast at a café in Rossio Square, we spent a few hours wandering around the Alfama, the oldest section of the city. It contains steep winding streets going up to the castle, which is the highest point in Lisbon. There are beautiful old blue tile facades on the houses, and orange roofs. We learned that much of Lisbon was destroyed in the mid-eighteenth century, not so much by an earthquake, but by a tsunami that occurred in its aftermath. I had always thought that tsunamis only happened in the Pacific.
When my wife was ready for a siesta, I tucked her in back at the hotel and went out to explore the bookstores. Over the years, I have learned to ask the concierge for advice, and he sent me to a district called Chiado which had several very large bookshops, all with English language sections. In every country I visit, I try to purchase a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses translated into the local language. I entered the largest of the shops that I passed and found a clerk who spoke some English. He told me that there were two Portuguese translations of Ulysses, one done in Portugal, the other in Brazil, both in his opinion equally good. He was out of both of them, but gave me their web-site if I wanted to order one.
I went to four other large stores, but none of them had a copy of Ulysses in Portuguese. Two shops had a translation of The Dubliners, and I saw a copy of a translation ofPortrait of the Artist. The interesting thing about the bookstores is that all of the books are organized by publisher, not author. Imagine going into a bookstore in New York and all of the Knopf books were in one bookcase, all the Doubleday in another, all of the Little Brown in a third, etc. etc. That is the way most of the bookshops in Portugal were stocked. If you did not know the publisher, the clerk had to look it up on the computer in order to find the book. When the computer was down in one shop, the clerk actually went across the street to use another bookshop’s computer.
The Chiado also had a newsstand which was converted into a mini flea market and used bookstore. The owner was a rather scruffy ex-patriot, and I spent a long time unsuccessfully sorting through the wire racks and milk crates filled with rather ratty looking books, trying to find something to buy. I inspected the antiques as well, but my overall impression was that the kiosk was filled with items that had been shipped abroad after being rejected by the Salvation Army. I did find some old “French” postcards which he must have found hidden in some of the books, as they would not only have been rejected by the Salvation Army, but immediately tossed into the fire.
We left Lisbon two mornings later for a tour around the country. The first day we saw some beautiful medieval villages, each built around a hilltop with a fortress in the center and narrow winding streets leading down into the valley below. In the late afternoon, we stopped for the evening in a small town called Tomar. We checked into the hotel and went in search of an old synagogue which is now a museum. On the way, we passed a used bookshop. The synagogue/museum was not very interesting. The Jews were expelled from Portugal in 1497, and over the years the building was used for many purposes. It has recently been reclaimed and is now the repository of a myriad of donated artifacts, some new, some old, some Sephardic, some not. Occasionally, some visitors will come and hold a service there. I looked around rather quickly, then headed for the bookshop.
The bookshop was well-situated, only a block or two from the main square on one of the major shopping streets of the town. The owner spoke a little bit of English, and he offered to show me his selection of English language books. There were six in all, mostly British novels from the 1930s and ‘40s. I never heard of any of the authors, and had little interest in them, so he tried to sell me a Portuguese book. It was the one Portuguese book in the shop that you did not need to read the language to appreciate, as it was an art book with only three or four pages of actual text. The rest of the book consisted of hundreds of pages of beautifully executed equestrian themed pen and ink drawings. I might have bought it if it did not cost 65 Euro, which is almost $80, so I told him, truthfully, that I had an aversion to horses ever since an early adolescent trauma when a horse ran away with me in a public park at dusk.
(Needless to say, I was found, but I have cared neither for riding nor for horses ever since.)
I complimented him on his shop, and he replied, “Thank you, but the shop is very small.” I said, “Yes, but the town is very small.” He answered, “The problem is that the people do not read.” “It is the same everywhere,” I responded. “New York is a big city, and the shops may be big, but most of the people there do not read, either.” I took some photos and told him that I was going to write an article about bookshops in Portugal and offered to e-mail him a copy. To my surprise, he did not have an e-mail address, so he gave me a beautifully printed card with his traditional mailing address and phone number. I sauntered leisurely back to the hotel. There was no rush, because none of the restaurants opened for dinner until at least 8 P.M., and that was for the tourist trade, since the locals rarely ate before 9 or 10.
The next morning we left Tomar for Coimbra, which is a small city with the oldest, most prestigious university in Portugal. Again, I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of it. One of the highlights of our tour was a visit to the 300 year old University library. It looked like a church with bookcases—carved wood, gold leaf, a beautifully frescoed ceiling. The ladders were elaborately carved and designed to fit into the shelving when not in use. The building was not climate controlled, and we learned that they used an old-fashioned environmentally friendly method for protecting the books from insect damage—Chiroptera, or the order of mammals more commonly known as bats. Small holes were built into the archways for the animals to enter and keep the insect population under control. Fortunately for us, it was a bright sunny day and the rooms were infused with natural light which kept these natural exterminators in hiding. All the books did seem to be in good condition, so they must know something that our curators do not.
Like most university towns, the shopping area contained several well-stocked bookshops, so I was easily able to obtain the Brazilian Portuguese translation of Ulysses.
We continued on to Porto, the second largest city, and justifiably famous for the fortified wine that bears it name. We saw many interesting sights, as well as two bookshops which could not be more different from one another. The first was FNCA, a European bookshop chain, similar to the American chain Barnes & Noble. The one in Porto is a multi-leveled modern structure with large CD and electronics sections. One alcove contained several tables and two walls filled with English language books, mostly British editions. I was able to purchase a lovely bi-lingual edition of poetry by Luis de Camões, the greatest classical Portuguese poet, whom, again, I must confess I never heard of until he was lauded by several of the local tour guides. I also picked up some British paperbacks that used to be called “quid books.” They are small volumes each containing one story by a contemporary writer. It always amuses me to see how American books change when they are published “across the pond.” The British version of Paul Auster’s NPR collection I Thought My Father was God is re-titled True Stories from American Life.
Lello, the other bookshop that we visited, was, in contrast, close to 100 years old. The original architectural features were lovingly restored in the architectural features were lovingly restored in the 1990s, and the carved wood, gold leaf and stained-glass skylights make the shop appear to be a small cathedral dedicated to the printed word. A grand staircase led up to the balcony that contained more books and a tiny coffee bar with three antique wooden tables and an ancient espresso machine. The staircase looked just like the carved staircases that decorate the altars in the major cathedrals in Portugal. Our tour guide kept referring to them as “Stairways to Heaven.” Now that Europe is becoming smoke-free, one could sit there for hours inhaling the smell of dark roasted coffee beans and old leather books, a book and coffee lover’s heaven, if ever there was one.
There were very few English language books in the shop, except for travel guides, but I did not leave the store empty-handed. I bought an illustrated history of the Lello bookshop which they conveniently stock in four or five languages.
We spent several days visiting more villages and towns. In each one I saw at least one small bookshop, so somebody there must be reading, or at least occasionally buying a book. The one area where I did not find many bookshops was the Algarve, a large section of beach resort towns along the Southern coast. Our hotel, frequented mostly by elderly Britons escaping from the cold, did have a lending library in the basement next to the game room. The only item I found of interest was a first British edition of Sue Grafton’s E is for Evidence which looked at first glance to be in fine condition. The dust jacket was well protected in a mylar covering that could easily be removed. I picked up the book, but on closer inspection saw that the back end papers were stamped from a British library. I thought about stealing the book, and tried to figure out how to describe it. Since it has been in at least two library collections, is it ex-ex-library, or ex-library ex-library, or ex-library-library? I decided that the smartest thing was to put it back on the shelf.
We arrived back in Lisbon via a long suspension bridge, two days before our departure. The bridge’s name is the April 25th Bridge, which happens to be my birthday. Our guide told us that the bridge used to be named for the dictator Salazar, and was renamed for the date that he was overthrown (April 25, 1974, the equivalent to their 4th of July).
As much as I was enjoying the feeling of truly being in a foreign country, I must confess I was beginning to miss some of the things I was used to, like lots of ice in my soda, really big ice cream cones, early dinners, and even my BlackBerry connection. Our hotel offered internet access (for a fee), so I decided it would be prudent to check my e-mail and change my status on the book web-sites to “returned from vacation” as it takes a day or two for the listing to propagate across the web. The connection was really slow and while I did manage to go into ABE to reset my vacation status, when I tried to read my e-mail, the system kept stalling and then giving me time out messages.
It was a shame that I was not able to access my e-mail, because if I had, I would have known that our return flight had been cancelled and we had been put on a flight that left three hours earlier. Needless to say, we arrived at the airport according to the original schedule, and could not find our flight on the departure board. So, that evening, instead of arriving home and getting settled, and checking the first book orders that came in now that the listings were back on line, we were ensconced in another hotel back in Lisbon, having a leisurely late dinner and waiting for our new TAP flight to New York at 1 P.M. the next day.
We arrived at the airport early, figuring that if this flight was canceled we would have time to switch to a different airline, but the new flight was right on schedule, so I had plenty of time to sample the wines and ports in the duty-free shop and to peruse the books in the airport kiosks. I noticed something very interesting. The new Portuguese books were all published in very nice hard cover editions with dust jackets for the Euro equivalent of about 25 U.S. dollars. The new foreign books, translated into Portuguese, were all published as trade paperbacks for the same price. Why buy a paperback, when you can get a hardcover for the same price? What a great way to preserve one’s cultural identity!
On the plane ride home I thought about re-pricing my inventory. Maybe I should raise the price of my foreign translation paperbacks, encouraging my customers to buy American hard-covers. But then I remembered who my favorite writers really are. I’d rather sell a cheap paperback English translation of Mahfouz, or Mishima, or Pamuk, the recent Nobel winner, than an expensive first edition of a popular American writer like Mario Puzo or Dan Brown.
The Portuguese are already bombarded by American culture and need to protect their own. In contrast, we Americans need to be exposed to other cultures which we know so little about. I ought to start encouraging customers to buy and read Portuguese writers they never heard of like Camões and Saramago, I thought to myself, as I sat back and started flipping the channels on the small screen in front of me, trying to choose from the selection of truly mediocre American movies being offered by the Portuguese airline. The average Portuguese citizen knows about our natural disasters, our major universities, the date of our Independence, and our pop songs. We Americans know next to nothing about the Portuguese.
Joe Perlman operates Mostly Useful Fictions out of East Northport, NY and can be contacted at http://www.mostlyusefulfictions.com.