Horta culture


I’ve heard Greeks declare that horta (χόρτα) means weeds, making us a nation of weed eaters. Well, no. We eat horta, which are not at all weeds. They are as distinct and various as flowers. Better tasting, too.

At the grocery store, non-Mediterranean types sometimes ask me what I do with the horta in my cart. Couldn’t be simpler, I explain. Boil in salted water and then dress with olive oil and lemon juice. For a change of pace, you can also steam or sauté them with garlic and chilli flakes.

The horta family embraces dandelions, chicory, rappini, beet greens, kale, mustard greens, amaranth (βλίτα), Swiss chard and countless other varieties. The category is elastic and non-scientific, hardly a family at all.

If they’re green and leafy, cook easily, marry well with olive oil, and won’t kill you or cause parts of you to swell up, they’re horta.

Kathryn Hughes, reviewing a recent biography of Edward Lear in The New York Review of Books, begins this way:

One day in 1848 Edward Lear, professional traveler, artist, and purveyor of nonsense, entered a small Albanian village and, spotting a stream full of watercress, pulled up a clump to have with his bread and cheese. Excited by the sight of a tubby foreigner eating weeds, local children proceeded to present the peculiar visitor with a series of even more outlandish snacks — a thistle, a stick, a nice juicy grasshopper. Soon everyone was laughing, none louder than Lear, who recalled that “we parted amazingly good friends.”

For me, a committed horta eater, this passage confirms that weeds are in the eye of the beholder. Horticulturalists tell us as much. Scientifically, there’s no such thing as a weed. But to a gardener, if you don’t want it growing in your garden and don’t expect to make a meal of it, it’s a weed.

Black Bridge

Most families in Park Extension didn’t own cars, so you’d often see Greeks boarding the 179 bus, headed north of the elevated Metropolitan highway, into what were then the wilds of l’Acadie Boulevard.

We called this area Black Bridge, after a railroad bridge running east-west and just visible from Park Ex, if you looked along the north-south track running parallel to Durocher Street.

Black Bridge had legendary status. The untended fields, littered with tires, rebar and burned out cars, and fringed with clusters of bushes and trees, were rumoured to harbour all kinds of wild activity. Kids learned to smoke and drink at Black Bridge. They lit bonfires and had knife fights. Boys hunted birds with pellet guns and slingshots. They returned home bloodied and bruised, refusing to say anything. If a girl got pregnant, it happened at Black Bridge.

Today, this area is entirely paved over. A Costco squats nearby, surrounded by dozens of other big-box stores and strip malls, and serviced by acres and acres of parking lot.

But back then, the surrounding fields yielded enough horta to fill dozens of plastic shopping bags, which the foraging Greeks would wrestle back onto the 179, on their return trip to Park Ex.

On one such expedition to Black Bridge, with my mother and a crew of aunts and neighbours, I left the women pulling greens in the stony field and wandered toward the distant railroad track. Here I ran into a couple of classmates from Barclay School. Glen and Barry were taking turns listening for an oncoming train by placing an ear on the track and holding up a finger for silence.

“I think I hear something. Do you hear something?”

This went on for many minutes, during which neither of them invited me to listen and render an opinion. Eventually a freight train did roar by, but we all heard it coming at the same time.

When it was gone, Glen pointed across the field. “Hey, lookit the fuckin’ peasants.” At this moment my mother straightened up and waved. “Hey, Speez, what are they doing, picking weeds or what?” They both laughed.

“Don’t ask me,” I said. There was a brief silence of mutual assessment. A shifting of cultures and histories, and then a realignment that would stay with me for years. “Yeah, picking weeds, I guess. Fucking Greeks.”

My classmates eventually drifted away, and when they were out of sight I re-joined the women and we lined up at the bus stop, the heavy bags of dandelions beside us bursting with horta, a lingering cargo of shame.

At home, more hours of work lay ahead. On these expeditions, each woman might have thirty or more pounds of dandelions to clean. The kitchen sink was too small, so they’d scrub out the bathtub and spend hours washing and rewashing the horta, setting aside some for the week’s meals, and blanching and freezing the rest for winter.

They never picked greens in a public park because people walk their dogs there. I often pointed out, not unreasonably, that gophers, squirrels and birds also make their homes where Greeks forage. Why was some animal urine and feces less objectionable?

I never received a satisfactory answer.

On the wild side

Supermarkets stock some basic varieties of horta, but these are cultivated. Where you need a slab of feta, good olive oil, bread and olives to make a meal of farmed horta, wild horta need hardly any accompaniment. Olive oil is necessary but enough.

Wild greens are so superior to their cultivated cousins, they may as well be different plants. Take wild dandelions, for example — intoxicatingly bitter, with a minerally flavour of soil, iodine and, I suppose, worm flesh and other microscopic edibles.

To my mind, wild dandelions are horta royalty, and yet they’re the most common and homely greens of all. A paradox: a stubborn peasantry that sprouts everywhere and resists every effort to eradicate it.

Wild dandelions will occasionally appear in Greek supermarkets, and when I’m lucky enough to see them I’ll bring a bag home.

I’ve often wondered where they come from. So I recently asked a friend of a friend who works for one of the big produce importers at Montreal’s central market. Apparently, when air-shipping rates drop low enough, the importation of wild greens becomes temporarily feasible.

A yiayia with rheumy eyes and a bristly chin in a remote Cretan village. It’s early morning, before the sun roars into the sky and makes work impossible. Bent over, she picks horta in a stony field, the delicate roots flecked with dirt, the tops kissed with dew. She carries her brimming basin to a local market, where it joins other horta from other yiayiades. A wholesaler buys the lot and the gathered yiayiades burst into a chorus of blessings. The wholesaler ships the cargo to Athens, where cases of the assembled horta trundle up a motorized ramp and into the belly of an airliner. Twenty-four hours later, wild horta appear in a Park Ex grocery store.

The logistics are impressive. The wild but perishable horta are still edible and yet manage to cost less than caviar and printer toner.

My garden

Today, I have a big lawn that is covered with dandelions each spring, and each spring I’m tempted to boil up a batch and douse them with oil and lemon juice. People warn me against it. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, dog, squirrel and cat piss — there’s no end of hazards.

So I fill garbage cans with dandelions and drag them to the curb for the Monday morning pickup. I can’t bear to call them horta. They’re weeds.




Dreams of Lisbon

After Porto, Lisbon is a thunderclap of light. The Portuguese sketchers we met in Porto tried to prepare us. They told us that Lisbon is a “brighter” city. But we didn’t understand how very different the quality of light actually is until we arrived at the Santa Apolónia station and emerged from the shadowed interior into a blinding vista.

The light seems magnified by the city’s building materials and physical situation — the whitewashed walls and pale stone. But also by the much wider river valley along which the Tagus River, far broader and deeper than the Douro, flows and shimmers in the sun.

On our second day, a massive Disney cruise ship, decorated with Mickey Mouse ears, heaved into position and remained squatting there for forty-eight hours.

We stayed within sight of the Disney ship, in the ancient quarter of Alfama, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Given the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites we’ve visited on our travels, I’m becoming a little doubtful about their standards of admission. It won’t be long before Decarie Hot Dog is also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its fryer oil protected as a cultural legacy for future generations.

The ancient neighbourhood of Alfama, spread out before us.
The light is blinding, and so the shadows are sharp.

The Greek confidence man

On our second-to-last day, while Shari sat in a hilltop churchyard to sketch the pattern of clay-tiled roofs below, I wandered the dusty cobbled lanes. Rounding a corner, I discovered a small used-book store with a number of English books in the window — mostly out-dated guidebooks and beach novels.

Inside, a young woman sat behind the counter, wearing an old-style patterned blouse and smoking a cigarette. She barely looked up when I entered.

In the corner, a box of English books rested on a chair alongside a hand-drawn sign — ONELY €1. Digging through, I found an old paperback translation of a Portuguese novel titled Dreaming Worlds, written by Hingston Vinheiros. By the looks of it, Dreaming Worlds had been produced on the cheap, with a cheesy illustration of people fleeing a flying saucer, which bears no connection to the story inside. The book didn’t name the translator. Nor did the copyright page list the date of the original edition, although the edition I found is marked 1963.

But here’s the really curious thing. A few days earlier, I had read an article in the July 30th issue of The New Yorker about a Spyros Enotiades, who worked for years as a DEA informant. Basically, his job was to infiltrate the society of violent and hyper-suspicious drug lords, and to convince them — through his language, manners and charisma — that he was, like them, a high-stakes criminal. His heroics as a world-class con put many criminals behind bars.

I positively devoured the article, not just because it profiles a Greek confidence man — Greek trickster figures date all the way to the Odyssey — but mostly because he spells his name with a y, as I do, instead of an i. This is the pettiest of reasons for reading a long New Yorker profile of an obscure con man. But I lead a quiet life and am easily impressed.

Around the corner, down a flight of steps, I found a small bookshop.

Feeding the dreamer

In any case, it was barely two days later, and as I thumbed through this yellowed paperback in a tiny bookstore in Lisbon, out from its pages jumped a character named Spyros. Without any more examination of the book, in high excitement, I handed over a one-euro coin and began walking back to our rented apartment, repeatedly tripping over the cobbles as I buried my nose in the book, seeking this other Spyro.

Dreaming Worlds is a work of fantasy. It tells the story of a rich man in Lisbon who gradually withdraws into himself, quits society and stays in bed. He spends his days dreaming about a universe where rebel androids have exterminated all humans and created a society governed by reason and good sense. Eventually a small faction of these androids, working in secret, begins to experiment on life forms, with the intention of restarting humanity — a second chance, as it were. Long conversations ensue in which androids discuss humanity’s deep-seated flaws and…I began to yawn.

The idea wasn’t new. It’s been covered by the science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick, whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became the Blade Runner movies, and by other writers.

But what happened outside this man’s dreams held me tighter.

Over time, the dreaming man’s family begins to forget about him. They find they can get on quite well without his presence, although they continue to bring a tray of food and water to his door each morning.

As the years pass, forgetfulness, or a kind of sympathetic dreaming state, also overwhelms the family. Only the iron ritual of feeding the dreaming man remains intact, which various members of the family continue to honour. As the home’s inhabitants come and go, as marriage, birth and death alter the size and composition of the family, so, too, does the house change.

During one period of heavy remodelling, the doorway to man’s room is walled off to create a new wing. However, the construction workers are instructed to leave an opening near the floor, so family members can continue to slide a tray of food and water behind the wall, even though they’ve long since forgotten why they do this…

While reading the book, at several points I wondered about the quality of the translation. The language was flat and awkward in many places. It reminded me of reading an English translation of the great novel, Blindness, by the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, José Saramago. Here, too, the wooden prose seems to emerge from a Portuguese speaker who has no feeling for idiomatic English. It’s a translation, but it hardly matters. Saramago’s pitiless vision burns through the lead-footed language.

(Maybe this just a late style of certain great writers? I’ve noticed the same awkward prose in John Coetzee’s later novels, as if winning the Nobel finally gives them permission to not try as hard.)

I don’t know how Dreaming Worlds ends because, as I eventually discovered, its final pages — however many remained — have long since fallen out.

And, by the way, the Spyros that jumped up from its pages turned out to be a Greek servant who prepares the dreaming man’s meals. He also functions as a kind of oracle in the novel. But as I said, I don’t know how the book ends.

We’re back in Montreal now. I’ve looked for more information about Hingston Vinheiros, but have yet to find anything. Let me know if anything comes up.

On the left, a small section of the 16th-century Casa dos Bicos, our favourite building in Lisbon, with its facade of pointy titties. It also houses the Saramago Museum.
Forget all my nonsense about High Encrustation being a characteristically Portuguese architectural and decorative style. The cloister inside the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem, just outside Lisbon, is magnificent and worth visiting. 
A view from a tower of people studying the many achievements, some questionable, of Portuguese navigators, explorers and colonizers.


Senhor Garrett

One old man giving another old man a haircut. Senhor Garrett, the barber, finished up and brought out a hand-mirror to show the customer his fine work on the nape. The customer was unmoved. He looked at his reflection severely and said nothing.

Senhor Garrett adjusted the barber’s cape, made a few final touches; didn’t bother with the hand-mirror again. The old customer paid and Senhor Garrett helped him with his jacket. The customer was older and frailer than I had imagined, once out of the barber chair.

Not too many haircuts left.

It had taken me some time to find Senhor Garrett. I had been looking all over Porto for just the right one, and today, when I wasn’t even looking, there he was.

For days I had resisted getting a haircut from a bearded hipster: didn’t want a haircut from a man with a perfumed beard and tattooed forearms. Didn’t want to be served espresso and provided with an unforgettable customer experience.

I wanted an old guy with enamelled iron chairs and a barber pole outside. I wanted an old man with cracked mirrors, dead plants and shaky hands.

I found all this with Senhor Garrett, just off Avenida dos Aliados, on our second-to-last day in Porto.

On the wall was a surprisingly well-executed oil painting of the proprietor, Senhor Garrett, standing in front of one of his red-upholstered chairs, as if it were a throne. The pose is regal.

I later found out that a famous nineteenth-century Romantic poet and man of letters from Porto was also named Garrett.

He gave me a memorable haircut, even if he did mangle my sideburns. After he was done, including going over my nape and ears with a straight razor and a pink disposable one, he used a fine instrument to remove my widow’s peak. I’ve never had this done before, so I can only attribute it to Senhor Garrett’s rare artistry.

Two chairs
The interior of Senhor Garrett’s shop. He has five chairs, but like most barbershops these days, only one or two are occupied.
Two customers
One old man giving another old man a haircut.
The sign
The sign that drew me in. You wouldn’t think that the name Garrett is Portuguese.

Laundry day in Gaia

On my long run yesterday I took my phone, which I’ve never done before. I knew my run would take me past the mouth of the Douro River and south along the Atlantic Ocean. I had seen something on my previous run that I wanted to record with my phone camera, and knew this would be my last chance:

A forest of criss-crossed sticks, tied together into rough pyramids and tethered to the ground, on which clothing flapped in the salty air. Meanwhile women emerged from a low building with baskets of wet clothes and apron pockets bulging with clothespins.

Peering into the building’s dark interior, I discovered a series of shallow concrete tubs and local women with plunging their thick arms into the soapy water. Two of the women were wrestling a blue and red carpet into submission.

The echoing concrete and sloshing water made a kind of music of the women’s voices and laughter. They abruptly stopped when they noticed me staring, and then shyly continued their scrubbing.

I retreated, feeling that I had already pressed my luck.

Other bridge
The other bridge, as I ran along Gaia toward the ocean. Note the extreme wide angle, which I don’t like. All I had was my phone camera.
On my long run I managed to reach the Atlantic.
Ladies at work, at a public laundry.

* * *

We arrived in Lisbon today, and on our first walk in the ancient neighbourhood of Alfama, a bird shit on my head. Lucky for me I was wearing a hat and didn’t ruin Senhor Garrett’s fine work. Not so lucky for my hat.



The most beautiful bookstore in the world

On the first evening during the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Porto, participants were invited to visit Livraria Lello (1906), “The most beautiful bookstore in the world.”

Right away, I became suspicious. Sophia Loren was the most beautiful woman in the world. And George Hamilton the most beautiful man. Everyone knows that. But a bookstore?

I set off a couple of days later to find out for myself if Lellos is indeed “The most beautiful bookstore in the world.”

I was crestfallen when I saw the queue to get in. But there’s more. You have to buy a €5 ticket to enter, and this means standing in yet another queue. Then you discover (because no one told you before you bought your ticket) that your backpack is verboten. So you’re obliged to lurk in front of two dozen lockers, all taken, for the privilege of fighting another tourist when one becomes available (and, not incidentally, pay another euro for the locker).

I’m standing on the street, having observed all this. Characteristically, I vacillate. I hate waiting for anything. I don’t do it on principle. But what if I missed “The most beautiful bookstore in the world?” Would the regret haunt me forever? I’m on my deathbed:

“Any regrets, papou?”

“Only one,” I gasp, with failing breath. “I stood at the gates of Lellos, ‘The most beautiful bookstore in the world’ and…”

A fit of coughing prevents me from continuing. My grandchildren, bless them, wait patiently. They moisten my lips with a cloth, and out come my dying words.

“…but I did not enter. I was too lazy.”

Expiring, my hand releases the snow globe I have been clutching, which falls to the floor, rolls across the room and shatters against the wall, revealing…

I paid my money and waited in both lines.

The interior is indeed beautiful. Except that you can’t see more than a sliver at a time because a large Dutch family surrounds you, cutting off your view and your oxygen. The crowd moves, you move with it. You catch a glimpse of something on someone’s phone screen. Beautiful. You line up to pay for a book. You hand over more money.

You’re outside, gulping air. There’s a book in your hand. It’s Dunbar, Edward St Aubyn’s latest, which you actually want to read. St Aubyn wrote the devastating Patrick Melrose novels, and Benedict Cumberbatch recently played Patrick Melrose in the TV adaptation. Role of a lifetime. The most beautiful performance in the world.

Livraria Lello is a money machine. You pay €5 to get in, which you can use toward the purchase of a book. So product flies off the shelf. J.K. Rowling taught English in Porto in the early 1990s, so they’ve managed to yoke her in as well. The connection is tenuous, at best. She probably visited. Must have liked it. Maybe inspired her description of Hogwarts Library. And who is going to deny any of this?
When we went on our port wine tour, we saw many barrels. All made from Portuguese oak.
Later, walking back, I saw a cooper’s truck laden with barrel hoops.
A lady tends her wares. Hundreds of cans of dainty foods, mostly sardines.
People work hard here, and are always smiling.
Working hard
This gentleman, too, is working hard.

Graphic Porto

They’re at it again, the sketchers. Nearly a thousand of them from all over the world, attending the Urban Sketching Symposium in Porto. Dozens parked on staircases, in cafés and on street corners. Faces bobbing at irregular intervals, examining a scene, making a mark or two, looking up again, looking down and making a mark or two, then looking up, then looking down and making another mark.

Repeat, for two hours or more.

At night, the same thing but indoors. Only now, beside the sketchbook sits a glass of beer, getting warm and flat. Then, till all hours of the morning, earnest discussion about vanishing points and pigments.

Urban Sketchers was founded in Seattle in 2008 by Gabby Campanario, and it has since grown into a huge global movement. Gabby works at the Seattle Times, and has taken up running in the last few years. He ran a marathon in Seattle in June, and we compared notes. Which side of the Douro is better to run on: that sort of thing.

The handsome sardine

I don’t know why I’m surprised, but Porto’s graphic culture is at a very high level. And it’s not just the domesticated design of packages, posters, signs and t-shirts. It’s also the wild design on walls, doors and discarded appliances.

(Speaking of packages, tinned sardines come dressed up in splendid little boxes. As in Barcelona, these people are connoisseurs of tinned food and will pay ridiculous money for a can. Entire shops are dedicated to conserved mouthfuls of fish, octopus, squid and other delicacies. Hundreds of handsome packages stacked in gorgeous crayon colours. We ordered a can of sardines the other night, and the open can arrived on a plate, together with the lovely cardboard box respectfully laid alongside, indicating its provenance.)

But I get so easily distracted. What I started to say is that the most exciting graphics are on walls, doors and discarded appliances: ingenious and masterful graffiti animate the twisting streets and lanes of Porto.


Donald in the window

Down the hill
Beauty, everywhere you look.

Life lessons on a t-shirt

A different kind of graphic culture, near-universal in its reach, plays out on t-shirts. How and when, exactly, did t-shirts happen? When did it become permissible to walk around wearing garments that declare, WORLD’S GREATEST GRAMPA?

You see less of this here than in North America. But even here, you get life lessons and comments whether you like them or not: COOL PEOPLE SMILE.


A woman with a toddler in each hand: I LIVE FOR LUST.

A scowling woman in a tight sleeveless:



A little more than a t-shirt, but well expressed by a local.

Montreal high

I went to high school when t-shirts were worn under collared shirts for added warmth in winter, or during gym class. You’d wear a t-shirt during summer to play in the park. But then, during high school, they started to become possible at school. The poorer kids, especially from Pointe-St-Charles, St-Henri and Park Ex might wear a t-shirt to school, usually plain or a solid colour. No logos, no clever words, no graphics.

Imagine the bombshell, then, when a boy named Frank Freck came to school in a white t-shirt, with an all-caps, all-black FUCK OFF across his chest.

“Where did you get that?” I asked, incredulous. But what I really wanted to ask was, how could you?

Frank opened a mouth of ruined teeth and laughed. Fearless, crazy, stupid.

It was as if he’d set his hair on fire, farted loudly during the minute of silence on Remembrance Day, and lit a bong in the principal’s office. All three at once. I couldn’t help but admire him.

And, to be honest, his FUCK OFF was the first life lesson I’ve ever absorbed from a t-shirt. It taught me that I will never possess Frank Freck’s magnificent nerve.

Wedding dress
The ghostly wedding dress and kitty on the shoulder caught my eye.

All you can drink

I was having an espresso at a downscale little café yesterday, where a posted sign listed the nine grades of port wine available by the glass. Prices started at €3.5 and climbed to €14. The nine wines: Tawny, Ruby, Branco Sweet, Branco Dry, Pink, Reserva, LBV, 10 anos, 20 anos. You can order all nine for €44, or smaller portions of all nine for €30.

You can, but why would you?

Politics. I don’t know if NATO is good or bad, in this context.

Sense of arrival in Porto

Today I ran down to the Douro River and headed west. Whenever we arrive at a new place, I take a leisurely let’s-get-acquainted run, where the stakes are low. It’s okay to get mildly lost, even if it seems impossible to lose your way when you’re running along a river.

Across the Douro, in Gaia, big signs atop stone warehouses proclaimed many of the familiar English and Scottish names — Dow’s, Taylor’s, Offley, Sandeman, Warre…

A delegation of Englishmen arrived hundreds of years ago, looking for wine. War with France had choked off England’s traditional sources, and the rich were thirsty. The gentlemen sampled the local fortified wine, pronounced it excellent and, like Victor Kiam of Remington fame, they bought the company.

Actually they bought pretty much all the companies, and these gentlemen’s descendants still control much of the trade in port wine. They were later joined by Germans, and now many Portuguese are also in on the action.

I accompanied the instructors of the 2018 Urban Sketching Symposium on a tour of the Poças port wine producer. Many hundreds of barrels were seen and sketched.

From Gaia
A view of Porto from Gaia, across the Douro River. Note the Ponte de D. Luis I, on the right.
Another view of the bridge. When completed in 1886, it was the longest bridge of its kind. One of its architects, Théophile Seyrig, was a discipline of Gustave Eiffel.

Airbnb in Porto

We’re staying on Rua das Flores, a street packed with shops and tourists, which serves as one of several pedestrian funnels that feed mobs of tourists to the waterfront.

When our cab driver from the airport first pulled up to our Airbnb rental, he remarked that ten years ago he wouldn’t have risked coming to this street. He would have dropped us at the train station, two blocks away, and told us to walk.

Now it’s safe but, alas, crowded. Porto is in a rush to modernize and accommodate; to be the next Barcelona or Prague. Yellow construction cranes everywhere. Buildings in plastic shrouds. And bluetoothed tourists dutifully trooping behind their murmuring guides.

You hear that Porto is becoming another monument to Airbnb, made unaffordable for locals. The old coffeehouses and street life have vanished, they tell you.

Travel enough, and it’s a familiar lament. “If you’d only seen [Porto…Prague…Athens… Barcelona] before….”

In a few years time, we’ll be making the same wistful comments: “Ah, if you’d only seen Porto back in 2018. Before they brought in midget wrestling and the Baby Olympics.”

Tiled church
The Portuguese haven’t met a decoration they don’t like. The ecclesiastical style is Maximal Encrustation, with a what-the-hell exuberance reminiscent of that other palace of holy excess, San Marco, in Venice.

Stay on the backstreets

Built on the banks of the Douro, Porto’s cobbled streets are often so steep they simply give up and become stairs. They could just as easily qualify as walls. You clamber to the top, duck through a doorway and find yourself in a postage-stamp square, surrounded by thumb-size Renaults and Skodas clinging to the cobbles like cats. How on earth did they get up here?

These dirty backstreets and alleyways, well away from the river, are the best part of Porto. Colourful laundry hanging from windows. Ramshackle houses next to hipster bars. Old people smoking. Cats blinking in the sun. And the mingled aromas of piss and frying chourico sausage.

Old man
This is where you want to be in Porto.
Old man2
As you can see, I’m partial to old men at windows, especially when they’re hanging laundry.
Yellow walls
I dropped in to visit Porto’s Sé Cathedral, just around the corner from this alley, and a trumpeter in the churchyard was playing the traditional Portuguese tune of Hava Nagila.

Palestrina in Porto

High above the city, we lingered over a dinner of grilled sardines and fried hake, accompanied by a half-litre of local wine. Swallows swooped and darted in the gathering dusk. The mãe who hustled racks of sardines into and out of the barbecue came upstairs, drying her hands on her apron. She went from table to table, asking if the fish was to everyone’s liking.

Afterward we drifted downhill, pleasantly lightheaded and grateful.

Outside the Igreja da Misericórda (Church of the Misericord), a few steps from where we’re staying, we saw a knot of people at the door. A concert was about to begin.

Moments later, we were in a pew near the front as the thirty members of the Lapa Polyphonic Choir filed in, men and woman, all in black. The first piece, by Palestrina, left us moist-eyed and limp.

I find myself focusing on a girl in the front row of the choir. A little cross-eyed and with teased hair. Her lips form a perfect O on the vowels. The concentration on her face is perfect, and I feel the music of thirty voices come pouring from her mouth.

My last post, from Strasbourg, was rather dark. But this small concert of sacred music that concluded our second night here reminded me of the stubborn glories of humanity.

Rail and alley.jpg

The European Parliament

We were in Strasbourg, France, and I had planned for my long run to take me into Germany on Friday. I mentioned this at dinner, and a Frenchwoman snorted dismissively. I may as well have said I was going to mix my salade niçoise in the bathroom sink.

You can, but why would you?

As it turns out, I never made it into Germany. The Rhine, which marks the border between two formerly implacable enemies, remained tantalizingly close. But I got slightly lost and, before becoming thoroughly lost, decided to retrace my steps.

World Cup
The World Cup occupies a lot of the conversation here. Tonight we’ll watch the final, I hope.

We’re staying with a friend who lives the Quartier Européen, which is the official seat of the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights, with a slab of the Berlin Wall out front, and numberless other organs of European bureaucracy.

The Quartier is massive and seems to have doubled in size since the last time we were here, ten years ago, with gleaming new buildings rising in every direction. The work of government is divided with Brussels and Luxembourg, so when meetings shift from city to city, long caravans of tractor-trailers shuttle equipment and documents. Armies of politicians, bureaucrats, translators, observers and countless other functionaries also migrate, conspicuous on the streets in their dark suits and ties.

The European Parliament Building. In the foreground is the canal along which I ran on several occasions, once in a fruitless attempt to reach Germany.

J. Simpson, Plaintiff

I took a walk the other day, and stood near the gates of the European Court of Human Rights to take pictures of painstakingly hand-lettered posters protesting one outrage or another: cases the Court has heard and dismissed, or refuses to hear, or has decided against.

A thin man in clean, threadbare clothes approached and asked if I knew about the case I was photographing.

“No, I don’t,” I said, bracing myself for what I knew was coming.

“If you will allow,” he said, and for the next forty-five minutes, one J. Simpson expanded on his life. A former software expert, he said he’s had his throat cut. Britain’s MI5 and MI6 are bent on destroying him. Tony Blair is personally involved. Listening devices have been planted. Judges and lawyers bought off. Indeed he’s been under surveillance since his university days forty years ago.

Here’s a quote from the literature he passes out:

…After a blood-spurting, throat-cutting killing I unexpectedly awoke to see the paramedic cut my forehead (Who wanted me to see that?). Subsequent months twitching like a dog, even in a locked cell, included (Number 5 of the 14 most serious) a drugged panic…

I looked into J. Simpson’s eyes for obvious signs of madness. I saw nothing and wondered if the fault was mine. What if he’s absolutely correct about everything and the rest of us are mad?

Simpson, Plaintiff, has bright, pale grey eyes and a stooped posture. Thinning hair and an odd, barking laugh. And the European verbal tic of seeking agreement at the end of a statement by saying “Yeah?”

He’s been camped out here for four years — literally camped out. His small silver tent was just visible above the tall grass across the busy Allée de la Robertsau. It was a cold winter, he said, ten below for weeks at a time. He now lives hand-to-mouth on the meagre savings from his working days. Rides his folding bike to Kehl, just over the border, for tins of sardines (everything is cheaper in Germany). Treats himself to a small wheat beer some evenings. And comes here every day, rain or shine, to talk to strangers about his case.

“How can I help?” I asked.

“Tell people about me.”

I shook his hand and wished him luck. But what I really wanted to do was hug him.

As I retraced my steps over the canal bridge, I heard shouting behind me. There was Mr. J. Simpson, Plaintiff, gesturing broadly and calling at the top of his voice for justice.

J. Simpson
Part of J. Simpson’s lengthy appeal, on the fence opposite the European Court for Human Rights.

Things fall apart

Europe, or the idea of Europe as constituted here, in these buildings, is under attack. Neo-liberals, deracinated bureaucrats, the erasure of national aspirations, sclerotic decision-making, a cabal of billionaires and politicians. The charges are familiar.

I don’t live in Europe, but it seems to me that a vast and unhumorous army of inefficient bureaucrats is preferable to armies with guns. In the twentieth century, Europe was convulsed twice by unspeakable horrors: senseless murder on an industrial scale, chemical warfare, and tens of millions dispossessed and homeless.

The genius of a pan-European government was that these regular spasms would cease. Perhaps erased through the unremitting boredom of bureaucracy, but at least made far less likely. No more appeals to blood and soil, or to the glory of the fatherland.

But now the idea of Europe is under attack. Through a lack of memory and imagination, leaders on every side are dismantling what took so much effort to build. As before, they play on fears, stoke suspicion. And a rough beast with orange skin and yellow hair, the physical embodiment of a lit match, slouches toward Europe to ignite a new conflagration.

Another protest poster, beside J. Simpson’s plea. “Oh, yes. The Roumanian fellow,” said J. Simpson, Plaintiff. “You should speak to him too.”