The best country in the world

Short stories about the country that everyone seems to love

I’m living for past few years away from my country, Portugal.

Unlike many of my fellow citizens who feel looked down upon when they say they are Portuguese, I’m always surprised at how foreigners seem to love Portugal. Everyone has been there at least once and keeps the loveliest of memories from their vacations.

The image created about Portugal abroad feeds all kinds of projections. They all seem to be romantically superficial enough to have in common the vision of a beautiful piece of land, home to poets and navigators, tucked into Europe and filled by people, mildly shy and charmingly reserved who are all so “nice”, and “warm” and ‘welcoming”. The short stay, massified tourism, inspired by advertising and opinions of strangers read on Trip Advisor, consolidates the collective imaginary.

No one seems to care about the truth behind sunny days at the beach, cheap seafood and smiling faces.
Perhaps due to that, expats consider that Portugal has the best quality of life worldwide. When it comes to tourism, it has received, last year, the tourism award for the best destination. Lisbon was awarded best urban destination.
As a Portuguese, I should be happy about it, right?
Maybe, if the truth that I know wouldn’t be so different and if the perpetuation of the myth didn’t prevent what is wrong to be changed.

“No place is perfect” – we might reasonably agree. Nonetheless, the place that I know is so far from its superb image that if its reality weren’t so offensive for the locals, it would be funny.

So, I’ve decided to take on the solitary and ungrateful role to show you the Portugal that I know and which led me to call another country my home. Once in a while, I will write a short chapter that illustrates a reality different from the Lonely Planet descriptions. Each chapter will add up to a quilt of memories and narratives that is, for me, my country of origin, for others, the best country in the world.

If you love Portugal to the point of wanting to know it beyond the tourism brochures and if your love endures after a few chapters then buy that Easy Jet ticket, book that Airbnb flat, pack your cabin trolley and go for it!

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Lisbon by a Lisboner

“I can´t believe that you are from Lisbon and have decided to live elsewhere.” – I hear this sentence often and I have already learned to answer with a smile.

I never felt that Lisbon was my home, even though I was born and raised there and take pride in saying that I know it almost as well as I know myself.


From Lisbon, I keep glimpses of places that no longer exist and pictures that feel now so unfamiliar. My Lisbon is a patchwork of foggy memories like those kept as only remains of a relationship that never made sense, that definitely lasted longer than it should, but which also had its nice moments.  

And once, I thought I loved Lisbon. Now I know that I loved it with that kind of resigned tenderness that arises from conformity and feeds on the impossibility to avoid something. Therefore, in order to make it more bearable, one decides to focus on beauty rather than on everything that causes disgust.

Last time I went to Lisbon, I couldn’t find Lisbon anywhere. The ten million tourists – as many as the whole population of Portugal – that pass by Lisbon every year have managed to transform a shy and melancholic town pushed against the ocean into a chaotic theme park. The few old time cinemas that still existed were replaced by department stores, belvederes were privatised, markets from the XIX century were rebaptised by media brands. From the old “tascas” and “pensões” – which have become “gourmet wine bars”, “hostels” and “hotel-boutiques” – only the façades remain and the narrow and winding roads of the capital were flooded by “tuk tuks” which make the attempt of driving in Lisbon a Bangkok-like experience.

Every nook and cranny was overcrowded and everywhere, the prices matched the European average but not the Portuguese 900 euros average salary earned in Lisbon, the highest in the whole country. The stereotypes about Portugal have become brands and they are sold, shamelessly, as “authenticity”, the concept in every tourist’s mouth. The vintage is fake, the traditions are a pastiche ready to trade and the rule is the folklorization of us according to the projections of the others.

The real estate speculation and tension created by the local accommodation concept push the Lisboners outside Lisbon and the irresponsibility with which the local authorities handle the environmental impact of tourism massification in such a small city made it completely unrecognizable.

But somehow, some things hadn’t changed.
I confirmed the sociological assumption that cultural behaviours take much longer to change than the topography of a city.

I recognized the same long faces and half-depressed expressions on the metro and the schizophrenic attitude that inspires both a servil demeanour towards the foreigner and an extreme rudeness towards the fellow citizen. The general lack of respect for others and the constant absence of sense of responsability for a common well-being, which tends to characterize so many of people’s behaviours, remained untouched. Lisboners still hadn’t learned to give way to ambulances while on the road nor to smile at strangers for a matter of social politeness. But all that is invisible to the eye of the new Lisbon tourist. A tourist inspired by Lonely Planet guides, who flies Ryanair and hopes to know Lisbon in a couple of days, will be happy enough to discover that, after all, the whole of Lisbon can be contained in an Airbnb experience interesting enough to tell everybody back home.
Fernando Pessoa, Cristiano Ronaldo, Discoveries, fado, sardinhas e pastéis de nata are all part of the same package and in it there’s no place for anything that goes beyond the most superficial impression. There’s no time for more either.







“We’ll all get high and walk off
Into the country, ridiculous country
Where the blue sky will smother us” plays in my head and I can now make sense out of these lines.

Last time I went to Lisbon, I knew I wouldn´t ever go back.

Lisbon keeps remembering me why i left. We were once too irrationally close to be friends now. And Lisbon, you know you were never the one.

Burocracia à casa

Entrar em contacto com instituições portuguesas é sempre uma experiência inspiradora e carregada de memórias para quem, como eu, se encontra há bastante tempo longe de Portugal.
Com o passar dos meses, comecei-me a habituar a ser tratada com respeito por parte daqueles que me prestam serviços. Comecei a habituar-me a ver uma atitude marcada pelo civismo e pela educação e por uma forte noção de colaboração para a prossecução de interesses comuns. 
Habituei-me a ver as pessoas a sorrirem umas às outras e a evitarem conflitos mesquinhos em nome de uma convivência harmoniosa. 
Tornou-se rotina observar o brio com que as pessoas cumprem a sua função e a facilidade com que aceitam críticas construtivas em nome da qualidade. 
Aparentemente, aqui, as pessoas preocupam-se em conhecerem aquilo de que falam, em esclarecerem as dúvidas dos demais e a entenderem o conteúdo do papel que desempenham. Não dizem coisas à toa, não fazem as coisas “em cima do joelho”, não respondem a despachar, não se indignam por terem de fazer o seu trabalho, não fazem o utente/ cliente perder tempo. 
E fazem isto tudo sem enfado, “trombas” mas sim com genuína boa vontade, de quem não está sob a ameaça de um livro de reclamações ou de uma queixa ao superior hierárquico. E fazem-no perante alguém que, como eu, não fala fluentemente a língua.
Assim que contacto qualquer instituição portuguesa, sinto logo no ar e no tom da resposta o “deixa-andar” tão característico da nossa cultura. Ninguém diz que não sabe nem ninguém procura saber. Preferem lançar o utente, qual “batata quente”, num pingue-pongue de departamentos/linhas/guichets imaginários, fazendo-o perder tempo, paciência e dinheiro em chamadas internacionais intermináveis que nunca resolvem nada.
O argumento do “sistema está lento/ em baixo” continua a ser tão válido em 2018, em Portugal, como o era em 1990. E ninguém se envergonha de o utilizar.
As Marias Alziras e os Joaquins Santos, funcionários públicos, sofreram uma “reciclagem profissional” que nada lhes ensinou para além de uns tiques comunicacionais que repetem maquinalmente ao utente, sem lhe resolverem o problema. Os demais “colaboradores” trabalham a recibo-verde e são demasiado mal pagos e maltratados pela hierarquia, pelos horários e pelos colegas para se preocuparem em perceber aquilo que dizem. Por seu turno, os diretores, chefes de divisão, secção e gabinete instituem um rol de salamaleques que tem de ser desfiado antes sequer do problema do utente poder ser exposto.
Podemos sempre recorrer às plataformas e aos serviços online, claro está. Se as plataformas não fossem concebidas para não serem utilizadas por pessoas e para não terem qualquer utilidade real, até poderiam ajudar. 
Infelizmente, foram concebidas apenas para os seus mentores aparecerem no telejornal no dia da sua inauguração e para justificarem gastos do erário público. Mais uma vez, depois de introduzidos um sem-número de códigos, palavras-passe e verificações de identidade, constatamos que o nosso ficheiro está vazio. Talvez porque os mentores da moderníssima plataforma se esqueceram de migrar a informação dos utentes para lá ou porque os “links” que lá colocam não vão dar a lado nenhum, ou porque o site é incompatível com os “browsers” mais utilizados. 
Tudo resulta no mesmo: o problema continua sem ser resolvido. 
Gostaria de achar que isto era algo pessoal mas não creio. Afinal de contas, eu não tenho 75 anos, nem assino de cruz, já tive acesso a tecnologia mais do que uma vez na vida e, para cúmulo, falo Português e sou portuguesa. 
O que faria se não fosse esse o caso.

Reharsing an escape

My imagination decided how fast the trees passed by. I evaded fictitious obstacles and winded through a road which curves only I knew.

I was under my father’s desk. A massive, dark brown piece of furniture in the centre of the study room, ornate with twisted columns so shiny and smooth it was hard to believe that are were made out of solid wood.

 I was 4 years old and I fitted perfectly inside the cubicle between the two lateral sets of drawers.

The saucepan lid that I turned around a non-existent axis made a perfect make-believe steering wheel. I felt safe. I was on the run. I felt safe despite being on the run. I, definitely, felt safe because I was on the run.

I could be the driver of my own wooden car for hours and enjoy landscapes only I could see. Sometimes, I used to take Bolacha with me – a red, plushy clown, half my size, dressed in a tartan overall. But mostly, I liked to drive alone.

This is my very first memory of wanting to escape.

I was 6.  On Friday afternoons, I was particularly happy. No more school and a whole weekend ahead of me. The idea of what a weekend could be and the expectations of doing something special like going for a walk somewhere new or eating ice-cream at my favourite parlour were enough to make me happy.

On Friday afternoons, I loved to throw empty plastic bags out of the kitchen window. If they were light enough, on windy days, they’d quickly set off from out of my sight. It was such a pleasure watching them inflate and fly away! I wondered where they’d go and who would see them apart from myself. I liked to imagine they’d go high enough to land somewhere else and twirl around distant trees.

I wished I was one of them to take off from the brown window sill of the kitchen window up into the blueness of the sky.

Obviously, this was before their odysseys inspired Herzog and Sigur Rós and emblematic short films anddefinitely long before plastic bags were considered highly pollutant. So, I was allowed to empty the drawer from all the transparent ones and free them into an exciting and unknown world.

I was 13. I was crossing the Portuguese border into Spain by car. Our final destination would be  3 days away, in distant Germany, where I had never been. On the front seat, next to the driver, my sister started to cry, like she always did as soon as she left the country. On the back seat, a thousand tons are lifted from my shoulders and the air feels lighter and the horizon broader and I couldn’t be happier. I had never been freer. The further and faster we’d go, the better it felt. From the back window I saw the sign that draws an imaginary line between the two countries vanish in the distance, and despite I then felt as light as a flying transparent plastic bag in the wind, I was already dreading the day I’d see it again.

But, in the meantime, I would have a couple of weeks to fulfil my dream of travelling abroad, beyond the small Spanish border towns where, sometimes, we used to shopping during the summer vacations.

I was absolutely positive that everything I would find along the way, between Lisbon and Frankfurt, would be so much nicer than the place I came from. All those places, whichever they were and whatever their name was, meant freedom to me.

Hardly did I know that, almost 30 years and many simulated homes later, it would be in Germany which, for the first time, I would stop wanting to escape.