Tag Archives: portugal

Things I’ll Never Understand

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One of the reasons I think I’m not ready to have kids is that I wouldn’t be able to answer their questions about life basics.
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Why is the sky blue, where do mountains come from, etc.
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I don’t know why I know so little about this stuff. I went to high school, college, grad school (twice!). I have read books, sometimes even for fun.
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But when confronted with nature, the real kind, still and un-narrated, I can’t explain any of the whys or hows.
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I spent Christmas this year in Madeira.
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It’s island off the coast of Morocco that, for random historical reasons, is an autonomous region of Portugal, like a little European Hawaii.
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I knew very little about it before I visited. But now, because I have been there, I am interested in it.
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It was discovered in the early 1400s, uninhabited, a spike of volcano that wriggled up out of the Atlantic, then spend the next 5 million years getting ground back down to sea level.
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This process is apparently ongoing. Most of what’s sticking out of the water is hills. The old joke among the locals is ‘The only flat surfaces on Madeira are vertical.’
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The climate is perfect for growing sugarcane, so the early years were spent terracing the hills, creating stairstep cropland, cultivating it one stripe at a time. All the agriculture is still done by hand. 
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Sugar crashed when Europe discovered Brazil, the Caribbean, slavery. Madeira converted its little sugar plots into little vineyards. 
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That worked til the 1890s, when a disease wiped out all the grapes (think Irish potato famine, but this time the victims were warm-weather alcoholics). 
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The economy crashed, most of the island emigrated.
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Nowadays they still grow crops—those are banana trees down there—but mostly they cultivate tourists, people like me who fly all the way here for the weather and the pictures and the differences.
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This narrative, the path Madeira took  here, it makes sense to me, it’s full of people and businesses and a big economy that goes boom one century and pfffft the next. 
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That’s the story of everywhere, basically.
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But then I bike to the top of a mountain on this very same boom-and-pffft island and I am holding my boyfriend’s hand and we are looking together at a bunch of lava rocks sticking out through a beach and I realize that I have no idea why some rocks get ground into sand and others don’t.
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And then I’m thinking that if I was at the top of this same mountain, holding my son’s hand instead of my boyfriend’s, this is the shit he would ask me about, the rocks and the sun and why is the water that shade of blue and how many stars are there in the sky and I have no idea how to answer.
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Or maybe he won’t ask me, maybe we’re not the kind of society where we do that anymore. Maybe he’ll stand on that mountain and look at that beach and use his free hand to whip out his little tablet or whatever and he’ll read the Wikipedia entry about lava and we’ll stand there and neither of us will say anything.
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And maybe that’s better for both of us. I can’t explain how anything works when it’s really small or really big or made of rocks, when it can’t tell me how it works itself.
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But hey, if he ever wants to know how the island’s GDP is calculated, I’m right next to him.

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Filed under Pictures, Travel

What Is ‘Semi-Industrial’ Food?

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One thing that fascinated me when I was in Portugal was the ubiquity of the ‘Pastelarias’, the little cafes—one espresso machine, four or five wooden tables, pastries behind glass—on nearly every corner.

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But the ubiquity wasn’t the most interesting thing about them, it was the uniformity.

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Each of them appeared to be an independent business. They didn’t have the same brand name or the same décor.

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What they did have, though, was the same pastries. Not, like, a similar selection. The exact same pastries. Same size, same shape, same flavors, same perfect little char-marks on the custard, everything.

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It wasn’t til I saw the same pastries in a grocery store that I started to get curious about what was going on. Most of these little hole-in-the-wall bakeries aren’t big enough for proper baking equipment, and seem understaffed as it is.

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I was convinced that all these cute little bakeries were actually frauds, they were getting shipments of pastries from some suburban warehouse every morning, putting them in the window, tricking me into thinking they’re all charming and artisanal.

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I imagined some vast conveyor belt near a suburban motorway. Chinese workers sweating into hairnets, mechanically charring an endless line of snack-size custards.

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It turns out it’s not as bad as that. In a random bookstore I came across a coffee table book called ‘The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery’, and I learned some things:

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First, Portugal not only has the highest number of food establishments per capita, but also has the highest percentage of people who eat breakfast outside the home every day. This is why, I eureka’d, it’s the only European country I’ve been to where cafes are open before 8am.

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Second, there’s not some beltway warehouse making millions of pastries every morning and trucking them into the city. It turns out there’s a standardized baking school curriculum, and a strict licensing regime for confectionery makers.

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Not only that, but a lot of the pastries are made with powders and mixes (even the eggs, ew), minimizing the time and skill required to make them.

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These three things—high demand, standard methodologies and effort-free production—mean pastries are a viable and profitable business model.

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Due to the country’s history as a trading post where a lot of these recipes originated (the book’s version was that when Portugal Inquisitioned out the Jews starting in the 16th century, they all went to Vienna and became bakers), this business model is supported by government policies on opening hours, licensing, taxes, etc.

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If you’re gonna pick something for government subsidies and high standards, you can do worse than pastries. Still, I don’t know if bags of Bisquick and buckets of egg whites are any more edifying than a giant suburban croissant factory.

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The sustainable food movement wants to increase the availability of food that is ‘local’, ‘handmade’, ‘fresh’. These pastries are all of those things, at least technically, but there’s something about the process that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Literally, the taste they leave in my mouth is delicious.

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But maybe that, more than anything, is what foodies should be afraid of.

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Filed under Food, Personal, Pictures, Travel

On Quitting My Job

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Last week I was in Lisbon for work.

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Well, one day for work. I went the weekend before and walked around before I had to get my game face on.

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This is my last business trip for my current job. I put in my notice last week.

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They say changing jobs is as traumatic as losing a loved one or getting a divorce.

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I’ve never had either of those things happen to me, so I have nothing to compare this to.

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Lisbon is a good place to walk around and ruminate.

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The city is basically a series of hills, installed to allow it to view itself.

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Even the locals look impressed.

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For about 300 years, the Portuguese were a major European power.

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Profitable pillaging, royalty in the tabloids, franchises in Asia, Africa, the Middle East.

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At the time, Portuguese people must have thought it would go on forever. Conquest, expansion, power, wealth. Just follow the trend line from past to present to future.

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Then in 1755 an earthquake shook Lisbon to the ground.

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The empire never quite recovered. While Lisbon rebuilt itself, it lost its colonies to resistance, competition, neglect.

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Now, for all its charms, Portugal is a minor power, alone, its former colonies still speaking its language, but no longer singing its anthems.

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I was in Portugal to have meetings, shake hands.

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Knowing it would be the last time didn’t make me do it any different.

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‘Looking forward to working together’, I would say, realizing later I was lying. 

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My boss asked me why I was leaving, and I told him ‘I think I’ll be happier doing something else’.

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and he said, ‘You’re young enough for that to be a good reason. But just.’

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I’ve got a bunch of projects lined up, but nothing permanent.

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When I tell people I quit, the first thing they say is ‘You’ll be fine!’

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I think that’s true. This weekend, looking outward from Portugal, it sometimes felt true too.

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I’m not afraid for my future, or of it. I just wonder if that’s what you think right up until the ground starts to shake.

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Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel, Work