Today we set out to explore Porto. We revisited the cafe from the other night where we planned out our day with our companions and our entries for the blog. Catarina drove us down to the beach where stopped at another cafe for another coffee before taking off our shoes and “wading” (ankle deep) in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean. I climbed out on a large rock and sat down to listen to the waves crash and for just a moment I began to reflect on my former life plans, friends, and lovers before stepping back into the present moment.
We are perhaps too fascinated with everything right now, stalling at every possible corner to observe and photograph the winding streets because they look so different than the neighborhoods back home. We explored an abandoned ceramics factory, which didn’t really interest Catarina or Win too much. They laughed at us a little but also urged us not to climb the rotting stairs to the second floor which was one false step away from collapse. If they thought we were wide-eyed then, it was a bit comical to see us at the port. Everything was picturesque. We could have taken dozens of postcard-worthy photos if we were decent photographers. We bought chestnuts from a street vendor and the flavors mixed with the smells and sounds of the waterfront in an intoxicating mix of senses and emotions.
It’s very easy to walk through the streets of this beautiful city and fall into the trap of viewing another country through a phony lense; as though every place outside the United States is a Disney attraction. The air smells different. The people speak a language we don’t understand. Everywhere you look there is a bronze statue cast in the 19th century or a structure from the 15th century or even the 10th. A lack of consciousness about the political realities of another country often allow a person to take in all of these things in as they are by themselves, without any context, without being situated in history, and without any understanding of the fact that while for us they are “the sights,” for the locals they make up a city where they live, work, and struggle.
During a different period, perhaps we could spend all of our time here fairly ignorant of the other layers of Porto. In this particular moment though, there is a mood developing across all of Europe that is becoming difficult to ignore. The program of the bankers, bosses and old mainstream political parties across Europe is one of austerity (or a set of policies which are designed to reduce budget deficits and enforce what they call “fiscal discipline” during economic hard times). It never means nationalizing the banks and cutting military spending. It always means gutting the public sector to make way for people who want to insert the profit motive into every sphere of life and cutting the funding to social programs.
The example of the new SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) government in Greece, which is making good on its promises to reverse the hated economic policies of the previous government, has become a banner which an exhausted population in any city can raise. The day before we arrived in Porto, there was a “Solidarity With Greece” demonstration. There were demonstrations all over the continent. While taking in the sights around city, we saw several stencils of the Greek flag along with anti-austerity slogans spray painted on walls. On the 20th, there will be a demonstration against the austerity policies of the Portuguese government.
There is more to the counter-austerity narrative than just rallies and graffiti from left-wing activists. The profound and deep nature of the crisis and its effects on Portuguese society means that the discussion is one that can pop up at any moment, in nearly every context. During dinner, Win made a joke to the waiter that he didn’t need a napkin because he was German.
The waiter responded: “Ah, so this is austerity for the Germans!” Then he brought a stack of napkins to Win and quipped “My regards to Angela” (as in Merkel)
We all had a good laugh about it and Win said that he should start telling people he’s Austrian.
We talked of how the everyday German is often an object of scorn in Southern Europe and that when Germans drive through they sometimes put up signs reading “Germans Against Merkel” in order to try and publicly distance themselves from the policies of the Troika; the European Central Bank, European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund. The German government is the biggest cheerleader for the Troika’s policies of gutting social spending and economic safety nets across the weaker economies of the Eurozone, something roundly despised by struggling people in every country.
We spent the whole evening with Catarina’s friend, Pedro. He works both as a freelance photographer and with a government program for troubled youth. He had a few jokes to tell about Germans.
Tomorrow we are to take the “Worst Tour,” organized by a member of the Left Bloc, to see the poorest neighborhoods. These are the places in the greatest need of social spending and support and are thus hit hardest by the relentless drive of austerity. This is the side of a city that swarms of tourists don’t visit. Until we do this, we can’t honestly say that we’ve “seen” Porto. Maybe someone else will tell us later that we never really “saw” Porto because we never patronized their favorite octopus sandwhich vendor. I’m not sure if that’s a real dish here, I just mean that we all have our own priorities.