A Yankee Notebook, Columns

Shouting Importantly into Their Phones

EAST MONTPELIER –Tom’s Taxi, of Lynn, Mass., has been faithful as the sun for us. If you tell them that one of you uses a cane, they usually send a van. Which I do, and which they did. About half an hour later we pulled up in front of Portugal Airlines, paid the tab, and rolled in. So far, so good.

International flight check-in is always slower than domestic. In addition, the wheelchair service seems to have been hyperorganized into a cell phone-toting brigade of youngsters who shout importantly into their phones and now and then actually transport somebody to security and thence to their destination. So it was with more than the usual pleasure we met our traveling companions (we were  a 32-person strong New Hampshire Public Broadcasting tour group) at the gate. In late afternoon, our Airbus roared out of Logan Airport and headed east.

Flying east at 500 miles an hour, your night is foreshortened. But it still feels long, even in Premium Economy. Bea had brought a U-shaped travel pillow that we shared back and forth, though I think I hogged it. Just after sunrise, we descended, lightly as a gull, into the huge airport of Lisbon. Passport control (the wheelchair helped), customs, baggage; and we all climbed into our waiting bus.

We headed north through speedy traffic toward Porto, about three hours away. If you’ve ever driven in Boston, you have an idea of what it was like. But it seemed somehow kinder, less homicidally manic, than Boston. And, of course, the cars are smaller; hardly an SUV among all the Peugeots, Citroëns, and Renaults. Lots of Teslas, Mercedes, and BMWs. Naming them, I was in gearhead heaven. We stopped along the way (tour planners are always faced with the problem of not getting their groups to the hotel before check-in time at 3 o’clock), and finally all found our rooms and three glorious hours of rest before the welcome dinner. We declined by mutual unspoken consent to turn on our TV to a channel with American news.

Coming as I do from an environment of largely wooden construction, sidewalks of concrete, and streets of asphalt, I couldn’t help but notice the buildings of stone; sidewalks of square, broken tile (slippery when wet!); and streets of cobblestone. Porto is apparently blessed with weather varying from light showers off the sea, tentative sunshine, heavy showers off the sea, and downpours. We rode through the ancient streets in a convoy of tuk-tuks, three-wheeled electric-powered jitneys; paid half a Euro to use a public bathroom; spotted engravings in the pavement pointing the way of the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain; and marveled at the view from an overlook alleged to be infested with pickpockets.

Castles, palaces, and ancient public buildings made of stone everywhere. Tourists ditto, even though it wasn’t yet high season. We stood in lines hundreds of yards long to visit the vast monastery of Saint Jerónimos where, yearning to sit down for a few moments and surrounded by a whole cloister of inviting stone benches, there were signs everywhere forbidding even a brief respite. One castle boasted 39 large fireplaces. As a former laboring man, I couldn’t help but consider the amount of help it must have taken to keep these elegant places going, and how the laboring classes must have enjoyed having employment that kept them out of most of the weather.

An on-and-off rainy day saw us in Aveiro, which features canals and moliceiros, old-fashioned, high-prowed, brightly-painted canal boats that once sailed the canals, but now glide quietly, full of tourists, powered by four-cycle Suzuki outboards. We visited a demonstration of the creation of the local delicacy: egg-yolk, sugar, and pastry confections called ovos moles. My fellow tourist Ed and I sampled a pair and decided that the rest of our lives would not be bleak without any more of them. On the way to the bus from lunch, it poured, and like the cowboy in the old song, my durned old slicker was back in the wagon. Steve, the videographer, had an extra.

If I had to pick one word to characterize Portugal – at least the part we saw – it would be vitality. The old castles and palaces and monasteries were impressive, but part of a past that also included Vasco da Gama’s pioneering route to India, the colonization of Brazil, and Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. That vitality lingers yet in the Beamers flying by our bus. If only we could inject some of it into the young men and women shouting into their cell phones in the airport instead of pushing the wheelchairs of the mobility-impaired folks trying to catch a plane.

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