We buckled ourselves into a small electric vehicle that looked like a motorized pedi-cab parked outside our Lisbon hotel. Joel, our driver and guide, expertly pulled into the traffic while our companions on the tour, Eric and Heidi – fellow Canadians – introduced themselves.
“We’re from T’rono. I’m a sports guy,” Eric said. “I go to Buffalo, New York regularly to see the Leafs play. Games are always sold out in Toronto. I travel all over the States following my favourite sports teams.”
The heavy traffic made it challenging to talk, for which I was grateful. I didn’t want to hear Eric list how many cities he’d been to on his tour de NHL/NFL/NBA*. I wanted to listen to Joel. But Eric and Heidi’s presence gave weight to a curious feeling I sometimes have when traveling – that of bouncing along in a tourist bubble where I know I’m in a foreign country but there are frequent reminders of home. Joel’s flawless English added to that sense. Was I really in Lisbon or was this a Disneyland ride? Maybe the tuk-tuk’s clear roof also contributed to my impression of floating through Lisbon, in the city but removed at the same time.
A few minutes into the ride, Joel lauded immigration and immigrants noting Portugal’s birth rate is the second lowest in Europe and one of the lowest in the world. “We need immigrants,” he said, “unless we get our baby-making mojo back.” As soon as he said the word “mojo” I knew Joel was not your average tour guide. The tuk-tuk bubble’s thin skin stretched a little tighter in that moment. Might it burst? Might Joel provide an entry into a genuine encounter with Portuguese culture?
My husband and Eric gabbed enthusiastically about North American sports culture as I attempted polite small talk with Heidi about how we chose Portugal for our holiday. Somehow I got sucked into playing the game of competitive travel arrangements where the person brags about how little they paid and how much bang their buck was getting. You listen and nod and think “Shit. We got hosed.” You start to feel bad about your 40th wedding anniversary trip even though breaking the piggy bank was your intention and you had decided not to worry about cost.
Then there’s the other version of the competitive travel conversation which goes: “Have you seen X site yet? No? You must go.” You have an acute case of fear of missing out. You go back to your hotel and strategize your next day’s outings worried you’ll miss THE one essential experience, the thing that will make or break your soon-to-be fond memories, as though the way to experience culture is through a checklist of monuments dutifully recorded by your selfie-stick mounted camera and your Instagram account.
Joel brought us to Lisbon highlights on the tour – several spectacular lookouts over this photogenic city and the 12th century Lisbon Cathedral – but he also took us to a hidden tunnel steps away from a busy hilltop view where throngs of selfie-taking tourists posed. In the tunnel is a cartoon-style mural that might be mistaken for graffiti but which illustrates the history of the city. With pride, Joel explained the final panel showing the peaceful Carnation Revolution, the episode that ushered in democracy to Portugal. In less than five minutes, Joel had provided us with a complete history, supported by a delightful visual aid in a place people often miss. And he chose a literary vehicle to share his pride. Joel was definitely bursting my protective tourist bubble.
In front of the Estrela Basilica Joel explained, “This is where the most famous of the three “F’s” of Portugal are honoured before being buried. Can you guess what the three “F’s” are? I’ll give you a hint. The first is musical.”
Ever the student the first to put her hand up, I said “Fado.” He gave me a nod of appreciation.
“Any guesses to the other two? One is a sport.”
“Football,” I chimed. I got a big smile.
“How about the last “f”?” I thought I’d let someone else have a crack but no one replied. Joel smiled at me encouragingly. I kept silent.
“Faith,” he said and explained how the Catholic Church still significantly influences Portuguese society, even though younger people have turned away and attendance has shrunk. Joel editorialized how, when Portugal’s only Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Jose Saramago, died in 2010, he was not given a state funeral because he had been a fierce and unrelenting critic of the Church.
“I think literature is as important as football and should be equally valued,” he said. Eric, the sports guy, remained quiet. “I agree,” I said and nodded solemnly.
We pulled away, bumping down one of Lisbon’s many steep hills while Joel let the brakes go for a few metres for fun. This was a Disney ride!
After a stop at a wine cellar where, having listened to my husband and Eric relive in excruciating detail a famous moment in Montreal Expos baseball history, we folded ourselves into the tuk-tuk for the return to our hotel. Maybe it was the wine glow, but I had a hunch, and with alcohol induced courage I asked “Are you a writer, Joel?”
“I have plans to write but I haven’t written anything in a long time.”
“Did you know Jose Saramago was a blogger?” I asked. “You should start a blog. It would make you commit to a writing practice. That’s been my experience,” I said.
“I should. I feel time passing quickly.”
“I didn’t start writing until I was 54. It’s never too late. Wasn’t Saramago in his 40’s when he published his first work?”
And so we talked on our ride back to our hotel. Joel pointed out a local park where retired men were playing cards. He commented as we passed his neighbourhood of high rise apartments, saying it wasn’t the greatest place to live as there was a fair amount of drug use and drug dealing. I liked that he wasn’t shy about sharing both the beauty and the difficulties of his country.
Through Joel we found the Jose Saramago Reading Room in the National Library of Portugal just around the corner from our hotel. There were no selfie sticks in sight.
Sunlight shimmered through tall windows on glass enclosed, white painted and gilt trimmed bookcases. Patrons sat at desks with open laptops and books. I longed to join them in their learned world and bask in a culture where a library enshrines light.
The reading room was the opposite of the dark and terrifying conditions experienced by the characters in Blindness, the novel Saramago is best known for in North America. The story explores what happens to a society after a mass epidemic renders most of the population blind. Everyone lives in isolation and darkness and the resulting chaos destroys the guardrails of a safe society. The bright, clean light that permeates the library’s reading room symbolizes hope and a way out of the dark, the way that reading and education vanquish ignorance. As Leonard Cohen says “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
The sun-filled sanctuary that honours words and language makes a more fitting memorial to Saramago’s life and work than a state funeral in a dark, musty old church. Bless librarians for giving him this place. And thank you Joel for this cultural encounter.
*National Hockey League, National Football League, National Basketball Association