It is does us all good to listen to another person’s view on your own country and customs. All too often we are quick to dismiss our heritage and we grumble about our politicians and our way of life. Sometimes it takes a foreigner to highlight what they believe to be bad in their country and to point out how your own can be so much better.
Juan on guard at the war memorial
We were walking along the seafront from Alges to Belem in Lisbon when we passed a large war memorial and we happened upon the changing of the guard. We stood to watch the ceremony and after the retiring guards had moved away, the sailor (I assumed) who was now ensconced in his guard box, beckoned me over and indicated that I should have my photo taken with him. I teased him that he would get into trouble as in the UK the guards were supposed to stand very still and be serious but keen to break the monotony of his day he proceeded to chat with us for the next twenty minutes.
His name was Juan and he was a Marine. The Marines are a relatively young branch of the Portuguese services and were set up when a small group of their armed forces came to the UK to train and to learn how our Marines functioned. Juan had served in Somalia and Afghanistan (did you know that the Portuguese had troops there) and was now serving a period of time on ceremonial guard in front of the war memorial. Whilst he believed that it was correct to have a guard present he felt that it was an activity beneath the esteemed Marines. The large marble walls listed many fallen Portuguese with the majority of the deaths taking place during the 1960’s in the Portuguese colonies in Africa. There were thousands of lives lost in Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea during that decade.
Juan was trying to come to a decision. He had just about served his initial eight years in the Marines and was being pressured into signing up for a further term. This is when he praised the British system and society for its forward thinking and appreciation of the role of its service personnel.
Like Britain, Portugal does not have compulsory national service, but unlike Britain it does not allow its military to sign up in chunks of time which may or may not be extended or opted out of. Having served eight years he could now only sign up and remain in the service until he was sixty five. He had enormous respect and pride for his country but could not begin to imagine how his politicians could consider an elite member of the forces would be able to continue until that age. He wanted to remain in the services, but not until he was that old, and he was therefore looking to terminate his career and return to university.
He was also full of praise for the British people and their support and pride in their troops. Juan explained that in Portugal the population generally considered people who went into the armed forces or the police to be civil servants and they refused to acknowledge their part in wars on the world stage such as in Afghanistan. He was so pleased to be able to thank me and BF for our pride in our armed forces (we are British therefore it was a given) and by proxy, our acknowledgment of his work.
Juan continued to highlight the differences between the decisions that the leaders of the two different countries had made when deciding to enter the European Union and choosing whether to adopt the Euro. He believed that both past and present British governments were fiercely protective of their rights, our currency and were strong and correct to stand up to Angela Merkel whereas the Portuguese governments had given away too many rights and privileges in the past and now the population were paying for it. He was scathing about the German prime minister and her attitude to the poorer nations in the EU and could understand why so many young people wanted to leave his country.
Politics aside, I am proud to be British and extremely proud of our armed forces and this was reinforced listening to Juan. We may have many things wrong in the UK but things are not always as rosy as they appear elsewhere.
Prior to moving on to Lisbon there are two events worth noting from our day in Madrid. Or at least, we thought that they were very funny but perhaps you had to be there to appreciate them. Anyhow, I shall include them here for you.
There had to be some local news breaking as there were film crews everywhere and posses of police were posted on major junctions and outside important looking buildings with their riot vans, jolly big guns and fierce looking batons. Most of the film crews were filming and re-filming and they had minders to keep the locals away from their backdrops but we decided that we should attempt to get onto Spanish TV. In the centre of the large square in Madrid we came across a very nervous looking presenter who was glancing at her watch and fidgeting around – her crew were agitated and they were obviously preparing to go ‘live to air’ on the hour. We hung about and hung about …until she began speaking to camera and then we nonchalantly wandered across behind her, and stopped to consult our map directly over her right shoulder. Judging by the glare that she gave us when she had finished it was mission accomplished! We had got ourselves onto Spanish TV.
The second event took place when we were wandering along and chatting quite loudly together. A man stopped BF and insisted that he ‘hush, hush’. BF replied ‘sorry dude, I’m English and don’t understand’ and continued to chatter away. A second bloke approached and told BF again to ‘hush, hush’. BF gave him a withering look but this simply provoked the man into whispering another ‘hush, hush and cupping his hand he indicated what he was trying to convey. Hush, hush was obviously hash, hash and he obviously thought that BF could be a potential customer.
Anyhow, fast forwards to Lisbon. We managed to spend a day and a half exploring aside from bouncing at the festival. Our first tram ride from the railway station to Guida’s had been free as there had been no room to manoeuvre with our rucksacks at all once we were on the tram, let alone work our way down to the ticket machine on board (result!). On our first afternoon we got the tram back into town and walked up the massive hill to the Castelo de S. Jorge. The views across the city from the ramparts were amazing although much to BF’s disgust we arrived at the Tower of Ulysses just five minutes after they had closed off visitor access to the periscope. The camera obscura is an optical system of lenses and mirrors which had been invented by Leonardo da Vinci and I have actually seen one in action in Havana, Cuba and BF was rather hoping to see one for himself. The castle is quite large with complete walls and seven towers to climb, and rather than visiting the tower with the periscope in first, we faffed about climbing the others beforehand.
BF was placated slightly when we stopped off at a bar on a roof terrace and had a drink.
View from the Zambezi Terrace bar
The Zambeze restaurant looked as if it would charge the earth but the beers were no more expensive than the UK and the views were to die for.
We then wandered around tiny narrow streets in the Amalfa district on the hillside which were all steps and cobbles . Coloured garlands criss-crossed the washing lines between the balconies, children played in the gutters, and most of the houses were faced with painted ceramic tiles.
The narrow streets
These tiles are common all over Lisbon and they lift common looking buildings into works of art. We then stumbled upon a ‘World Fair’ in a large square and sat and drank caipirnhas from the Brazilian stall and listened to Latin American music whilst watching the Lisboans promenade.
That evening we ate in a tiny restaurant and I had the most delicate grilled sea bream that you could wish for whilst BF opted for a Portuguese steak. Our waiter looked scarily like Tom Daley and he got very embarrassed; bless him, when I asked him to pose for a photo for my mum.
One of the old trams
We also struck gold with our tram ride home when for the late night journey the sleek modern tram had been replaced by an original bone-rattling wooden carriage.
On Saturday morning we walked along to the Belem area and visited the Torre de Belem (Tower of Belem), wandered along the waterfront to the Padreo dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), chatted with a Marine who was guarding the war memorial (see separate blog entry), poked our noses inside the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (Jeronimos Monastery) and find of finds, had coffee and the most exquisite pasteis at the famous Cafe de Pasteis. Our hostess Guida had recommended that we hunt out this little treasure and we were so glad that we did. Reminiscent of tearooms with little ante rooms off from the main hall we were served by waiters who glided silently around and surrounded by glorious tiled walls, these pasteis were a little bit of delicious
I shall be returning to Lisbon at the end of August and I look forward to immersing myself again in its history and beauty.