Portugal: A Child's Dream Given Form

5 August 2015

Portugal: A child’s dream given form  (originally published in UP! Magazine (TAP Air Portugal))


 In September of 2004, I was giving a talk about my latest novel in Sydney, 11,000 miles from home, when jet-lag caught up with me and a wave of terror washed over me. To regain my composure, I promised myself dinner at my favorite restaurant in Portugal and a bowl of its wonderful soup – red-bean with turnip greens.

Was it odd to imagine a bowl of soup at that difficult moment? Probably. But I didn’t care – it did the trick, and I was able to finish my talk.

Such experiences have taught me that we need to pay close attention to the ways we keep ourselves hopeful at our most troubling times, because what we visualize then are the things that make us feel that we are living right where we are meant to be.

Like the soup that saved me in Sydney, the characteristics of Portugal that make me feel most at home might seem unimportant to others. And yet, the value the Portuguese put on what is small and beautiful makes the country special. An example: gardens. Even the most modest Portuguese homes usually have a garden with roses, bougainvillea and a lemon or orange tree, and a vegetable patch with collards and potatoes. What a difference it makes to live in a land where people value the presence of flowers and the taste of home-grown vegetables! And it means something important for visitors, as well, because out-of-the-way, unsophisticated restaurants often offer the freshest food.

Living in a country with a history of poverty also means that many people still speak the language of small gestures. For instance, I remain grateful to an old widow dressed in black, who – in the summer of 1980 – plucked one of the three white carnations growing in her front garden in Portalegre and offered it to my partner, Alex, when he told her what beautiful flowers she had! She never knew it, but she taught me a lesson about generosity I wouldn’t have wanted to learn anywhere else.

In short, Portugal may not have monumental attractions like the Manhattan skyline that towered over my childhood, but the whitewashed houses and cobblestone streets of its villages are so simple and sweet-natured, and the varied greens of its olive trees and cork oaks so comforting, and the twittering flight of its swallows so wild and unlikely, that it often seems as if Portugal is a child’s dream given form.

And so here is your challenge: visit Portugal and re-learn the pleasures of a picnic of goat cheese, fresh figs and just-baked bread under a grape arbor, on a day when the butterflies simply cannot resist the fragrance of the purple buddleia bushes around you. Indeed, why would they want to?

Michael Fieni