Fulbright in Portugal

Steve Doig in Lisbon August-December 2010

Lisbon skyline

Archive for the ‘Living in Lisbon’ Category

Muito obrigado

I have many people to thank for our wonderful four months here in Lisbon.

Thanks to the Fulbright Portugal Commission in general and in particular to directora Otília Macedo Reis; Paula Lemos, who arranged all my appearances around Lisbon and Portugal; and Carla Silva, who helped me navigate everything from opening a bank account to buying train tickets. I especially appreciate the opportunity they gave me to address the prestigious Fulbright Brainstorms Conference at the Gulbenkian Institute.

Thanks to my students at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa for their interest and enthusiasm, and for their willingness to be taught a strange subject in English by an American who is unable to speak more than a few words of Portuguese. I promise to them that one day I will successfully pronounce “freguesia”.

Thanks to Dean João Sáàgua and the faculty of Nova’s school of communication for inviting me to teach this semester and making me feel welcome. I was honored by their invitation to give the semester opening address to the new journalism students at Nova.

Thanks most especially to Prof. Antonio Granado, who turned his class over to me and who worked closely with me this semester. His enthusiasm for crowd-counting (see this and this was particularly helpful! My only regret is that we never made it to a Benfica game where I could wear my Benfica hat.

Thanks to the professors at other schools around Lisbon and Portugal who invited me to talk to their students and colleagues: Helder Bastos at the University of Porto; Anabela Sousa Lopes at Lisbon Polytechnic; Paula Cordeiro at the Technical University of Lisbon; Rita Figueiras at the Catholic University of Lisbon; Luis Bonixe at the Polytechnic Institute of Portalegre; and Joao Figueira at the University of Coimbra. I appreciated their help and hospitality, and the evident interest of their students.

Thanks to the staff of the United State Embassy of Lisbon. I very much enjoyed the hospitality of Ambassador Allan Katz and Nancy Cohn, his gracious wife. I appreciated the attention and interest I got from press officers Abby Dressell and MaryAnn McKay. And I really enjoyed my visit to the Azores, hosted by Gavin Sundwall, the American consul there. As a journalist and voter, I’m often critical of my government. But as an American citizen, I’m grateful that my tax dollars are being spent very well by members of the diplomatic corps such as these.

Thanks to the staff of Traveling to Lisbon, the apartment agency through which we rented the amazing apartment in which we lived. They handled cheerfully the occasional problems, right down to calling taxis for us when needed.

Thanks in general to the people of Portugal for their hospitality and patience with this language-crippled American. And thanks to the wonderful local residents that we got to know, like Maria down the escandinhas, or Asim and Mohammad and Ali at “Taste of Punjab” farther down the escandinhas.

Thanks to Dean Chris Callahan and my colleagues at the Cronkite School for their support of my selection to the Fulbright program. And thanks to Emeritus Prof. Phil Meyer, the godfather of precision journalism, and Knight Chair Rosental Alves, who first exposed me to Portuguese in Brazil, for their recommendations of my application to be a Fulbright scholar.

Finally, I gratefully thank my wonderful wife, Ellyn, for her willingness to go with me on adventures like this one. Her enthusiasm for everything from making best friends with people of all cultures to her happy eagerness to try whatever strange food is on the menu is what made this trip so special. Thanks to her, we will be back in Lisbon one day soon.

Busy final weeks

No thanks to a variety of recent concerns and distractions, I’ve been bad about updating this blog. Now I’m down to my final hours here, so I’ll use this post to catch up.

Since mid-November, along with my weekly class at Universidade Nova de Lisboa, I’ve had a great time lecturing about precision journalism (and dining) elsewhere around Lisbon and across Portugal:

  • At the Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa, I talked to an auditorium full of journalism and communication students. A week later, a dozen of those students came to a two-hour lab where I gave them a hand-on lesson in using Excel to analyze crime data from Portugal.
  • Then I gave a talk to a small group of faculty and students at the Lisbon campus of the Universidade Católica Portuguesa.
  • Next was my first out-of-town lecture, a talk to a room full of graduate journalism students the Instituto Politécnico de Portalegre up in the mountains about three hours northeast of Lisbon. Afterwards, Prof. Luis Bonixe took me to a great meal at a restaurant decorated with lots of old pictures of bullfights. “I hope you like meat,” he said. Luckily, I’m quite the carnivore — the appetizer was corazón de toro and it went on from there!
  • A couple of days later I took the train two hours north of Lisbon to do a talk to journalism students at the Universidade de Coimbra, one of Europe’s oldest universities. Afterwards, Prof. João Figueira and colleagues took me to a huge lunch at the Escola de Hotelaria e Turismo de Coimbra, one of a chain of 16 such schools across Portugal. The students prepared and served a fabulous meal.
  • My final big talk was in Porto, another train trip three hours to the north of Lisbon. The venue at the Universidade de Porto was the II Congresso Internacional de Ciberjornalismo focused on business models for online journalism, so I spoke about how data-driven investigative reporting can be attractive content for news sites. And once again, a marvelous meal followed when Prof. Helder Bastos took several of the speakers to a dinner of comida típica portuguesa. The next morning, I walked across the bridge to the south side of the Douro and did the tourist thing — an interesting tour of the Sandeman port wine cellars, followed by a tasting of two ports.

My last Fulbright appearance back in Lisbon was two nights ago, my final class with my wonderful Nova de Lisboa graduate students. I gave them an assignment to read various significant data journalism projects and write reports that can be shared with the class. We did a final Excel exercise, opening a New York Times list of what their critics call the “1,000 best movies” and turning it into a spreadsheet that can be sorted and summarized by year and decade. And then I finished by lecturing on “spycraft” methods for reporters to keep their confidential sources’ identities safe from prying eyes. Details on this and other exercises and lectures are here.

After class, the students invited me and Prof. Antonio Granado, my UNL colleague, to (yet another) fun dinner, held at a Chiado restaurant packed with students laughing, singing and clapping about the holiday break in classes. My ears are still ringing, but the pork, clams and potatoes dish was tasty, the conversations were good and the goodbyes were sad.

So now three duffel bags, a laundry sack, a carry-on and my laptop bag are all packed and waiting by the door. I’ll miss very much this fine apartment just below Castelo Sao Jorge overlooking downtown Lisbon, now decorated with Christmas lights. I’m happy to be heading home, but I know that Ellyn and I will be back in Lisbon one day soon. We have to — we left our hearts here.

Our miradouro

A miradouro is a viewpoint, a fine place to see the city of Lisbon laid out below. Thanks to its many hills, Lisbon has many excellent miradouros. But one of the best, in my opinion, is a private place — our apartment just below the Castelo Sao Jorge. We can sit on our balcony, sipping a strong bica (espresso) or a crisp vinho branca, and look out at scenes like these:

Full moon setting at sunrise

Sunset over Lisbon

Another sunset

Cristo Rey statue seems to float on fog

A rare (so far) rainy day in Lisbon

City of music

Lisbon continues to surprise and delight us. Yesterday was a lazy Saturday, with Ellyn and I sitting around the apartment reading and (in her case) watching a replay of her Boston Red Sox beating the hated New York Yankees. (For my futebol-obsessed readers, this is American baseball’s equivalent of the most heated World Cup rivalries.) At mid-afternoon, though, we started hearing bass drums booming from Praça da Figueira, the large plaza 250 meters (and about 400 stairsteps!) down the hill from our apartment. It sounded like a marching band’s drum line and we wondered what was going on, but just kept on with what we were doing.

After about an hour, though, the sound changed. Despite the distance, we could clearly hear the accordions, guitars and singing coming from the bowl of the central city below. I couldn’t understand the words, but the rhythm of the music and the high-pitched singer sounded to me very much like zydeco, the country music of Louisiana’s Cajuns. Roused from our laziness by curiousity, Ellyn and I trudged down the hill to see and hear what was going on.

We discovered it was a festival of Portuguese folkloric music and dance. On a raised stage at the north end of the plaza was a troupe of about 30 musicians and dancers, men, women and children dressed in the traditional clothes of Portuguese peasants of earlier centuries.

Folklore troupe

Spilling across the plaza was an audience of hundreds of local residents, many in traditional dress themselves, watching and clapping along with crowds of mesmerized tourists. The way the dancers circled and stepped reminded me of square dancers at an American hoe-down; the similarities of folk music and dancing everywhere are striking.

The music and singing we heard was much more upbeat and happy-sounding than the plaintive fado, the Portuguese national musical genre that is featured in all the tourist guides to Lisbon. But fado is a bit, well, morose for my taste. Consider these lyrics (in English) from the Turismo de Portugal site:

O Fado“, by Aníbal Nazaré

You asked me the other day if I know what is Fado
I said I did not know. You were surprised.
Without knowing what I was saying, I lied to you
And said I did not know, but now will tell you:
Cursed souls
Lost nights
Bizarre shadows
Love, jealousy
Ash and flames
Pain and sin
All this exists
All this is sad
All this is Fado.

I fear that a night on the town at one of the fado houses will make me head to the 25th of April Bridge to jump into the Tagus River!

Well, maybe not. Too much else is joyful in the music we hear across Lisbon. A couple of weeks ago we were wandering around the grounds of the Castelo São Jorge that overlooks the city. In a small patio area under the shade of a grove of oak trees we found several dozen people listening raptly to the voices of a soprano and baritone

Beautiful music in a beautiful setting

singing show tunes in Portuguese and English, accompanied by a pianist. It was an unexpected hour of lively music.

Another fun example. A few days ago we heard coming from down in the plaza below what sounded like a high school pep rally, with coordinated shouting and cheers from dozens — hundreds? — of voices. It went on for much of the day and we had no idea what it was all about. Another revolution underway?

The next day we were walking around down in the city when we heard more of the shouting coming from the Rossio plaza. We hurried over to see two groups of young men and women, many of them wearing the traditional formal black school uniforms. The two groups stood across from each other on both sides of the busy street. One group would loudly chant a derisive cheer and point in unison at the others, who would laugh and jeer back at them.

Students chanting cheers

And then the other group would respond in kind. Back and forth it went. It turns out that this was part of praxe, the Portuguese custom of initiation rituals for bringing freshmen into their new academic life. It reminded me of the days of required wearing of a freshman beanie at Dartmouth, or the hazing of fraternity pledges (though with less alcohol consumption.)

As I write this, the folk music and dancing festival continues for a second day in the plaza below. The church bells are ringing. And Ellyn is playing songs from “Les Miserables” on the stereo. If only Les Miz would come to Lisbon while we are here! A city of music, indeed.

Embracing all things Lisboa

I have never understood those American tourists who go to strange lands and then seek only what they get back home: American food, American music, American styles, American money. They complain, at least amongst themselves, that the hamburger tastes different, the coffee is too strong, the music sounds funny, the clothing is peculiar, the prices aren’t in dollars. So they get off the cruise ships and tour buses and flock to the all-too-visible outposts of American culture, like McDonald’s and Starbucks and Ben & Jerry’s and the Hard Rock Cafe.

For Ellyn and I, travel is an opportunity get out of our comfortable back-home rut and experience the very unusual. For instance, as I type this I am eating a salad that includes canned octopus (polvo). A meal of the suckered tentacles of an octopus is not something that would have crossed my mind as a choice back in Arizona, nor would I have found the main ingredient among the tins of tuna and sardines in my neighborhood Safeway supermarket. But we discovered octopus, in the form of polvo grelhado, on the advice of a waitress at Restô do Chapitô, a wonderful restaurant just down the street from our apartment. The octopus tentacles, grilled to perfection and soaked in garlicky olive oil, reminded us of the taste and texture of Maine lobster.

Back to sardines. Our first meal here was sardinhas grelhado, grilled sardines. You American readers are now wondering how the tiny sardines to which we are accustomed can be barbecued without falling through the grate. But robust Portuguese sardinhas are nothing like the puny finger-sized fishlets we get out of the tins. They are as long as your forearm and almost as meaty, coated with salt and grilled whole until the skin is crispy. A meal will be four or five of these monsters, which you filet on your plate with a fork.

Ellyn has written a whole essay on bacalhau, so I won’t go into detail about our samplings of the Portuguese love affair with codfish. To my tastebuds, codfish itself is pretty bland, but it serves as a protein base for delivering the varied flavors of the hundreds of recipes Portuguese cooks use for bacalhau.

We also have developed a habit a couple times a day for saying “Uma bica, por favor”, thus ordering a single-shot jolt of strong espresso sweetened with sugar. There are various legends about the origin of the name bica. One is that Bica was the name of a model of an espresso machine once widely used in Portugal. According to Coffeeratings.com, BICA might be an acronym either for “beba isto chávena aquecida” (drink in a heated cup) or “beba isto com açúcar” (drink this with sugar). Whatever the history, Lisboans knock back several of these a day, and we’re doing our best to keep up the pace.

Another daily habit of many Lisboans is sipping a shot of ginjinha, a sweet cherry liqueur made by soaking small sour ginja berries in alcohol with sugar and cinnamon. Tiny ginjinha joints are scattered around Lisbon, often with a small crowd lined up outside at any time of day to get a pick-me-up. Tastes great, particularly if a couple of the little cherries wind up in your shot glass along with the liqueur.

Our sampling of calories from Portugal include cheeses and sausages, which Ellyn and I often have as tapas in the evening if we’ve had our big meal at some restaurant or cafe during the lunch hour. I’m on a mission to try as many different varieties of cheese as I can find. The raw milk from cows, sheep and goats is transformed here into all sorts of delights, from the mild and buttery like Queijo de Azeitao to the much tangier Mistura Cabreira. Every time I spot an unfamiliar variety in one of the small mercados where we typically shop, I get a wedge or wheel of it. So far, none have disappointed, particularly when consumed along with sips of 10-year-old port.

Everything we eat or drink isn’t purely Portuguese. Lisbon is a very cosmopolitan and ethnically-diverse city. Thousands of people from former colonies in Brazil, Africa, India and Asia live here, bringing with them their tastes in food and drink. One of our recent visitors is a vegetarian who enjoys Indian food, so Ellyn and I began looking for an Indian restaurant — and discovered they were all over town. (Curiously, Indian restaurants here often also offer Italian food like pasta and pizza; go figure.) We’ve eaten at several, enjoying recipes like chicken korma and lamb saag wiped up with garlic naan.

Our efforts to embrace the culture of Portugal doesn’t mean we have avoided all things American. Lisbon’s modern multiplex cinemas are filled with American movies, which typically are shown in English with Portuguese subtitles (one reason so many people in Lisbon understand and speak English quite well.) During the week Ellyn will watch a couple of favorite American tv shows via the internet, and there are more to choose from (still in English) on the Lisbon cable stations. We’ve even been seduced into buying an iced coffee drink at the relatively new Starbucks in the Rossio train station. But we’ve had no trouble resisting a visit to McDonald’s!

I know that when we return to Arizona in late December, we’ll pretty much go back to that comfortable routine we’ve had for years. But I plan to keep up a few habits I’ve developed here: Lots of walking, a daily espresso, and good cheese with aged port. Oh, and the occasional grilled octopus. We gotta find a good recipe for that!

Lingua limits

My woeful ability with languages in general and Portuguese in particular hasn’t caused me major problems since our arrival in Lisbon, but I do keep bumping into the reminders that I am an estranho numa terra estranha. That’s “stranger in a strange land”, according to Google Translate, which is my lifeline to comprehension when I’m on my computer.

Problem is, I spend a lot of time each day away from Google Translate’s comforting help. For instance, it’s always an adventure figuring out what the store signs are advertising. A ferretería doesn’t sell ferrets, for instance — it’s a hardware store.

I try to be polite when I’m buying groceries in the supermercado or taste treats in a pasteleira, using por favor (please) and obrigado (thank you) and desculpe (excuse me) as necessary. But random fragments of other languages I also can’t speak all too often spill out of my mouth instead. In the same encounter, the confused shopkeeper is likely to hear me say bitte or gracias or scusi. It’s as though I’m speaking in tongues. Even when I accidentally utter actual Portuguese, the result can be laughable — my attempts at “thank you” sometimes come out as obrigada, which in full means “I am a woman who is obliged to you.” The waiters to whom I say this look at me pityingly, and gently correct me.

Today I ran into another small difficulty caused by my status as a language dolt. Ellyn and I went to the Fulbright office this afternoon to pick up our mail, which included my new bank debit card. I had been using a temporary card, which I was told would stop working once I started using the new card. So I put the new card in my wallet and cut up the temporary one; you can never be too careful, right?

The new card came wrapped in a brief letter — in Portuguese, of course. I stuffed that in my pocket without looking at it. Ellyn and I then walked a few blocks to the giant El Corte Ingles shopping mall to see a movie. But when I tried to pay for the tickets with the new card, it was rejected. Yikes! I had enough euros on me to get the tickets, so we went into the movie. (Os Mercenarios, known as “The Expendables” in the U.S. Directed by the noted cinema auteur Sly Stallone, it couldn’t have been less intelligible if it had been dubbed in Portuguese, instead of English with Portuguese subtitles. But the popcorn was good!)

After the movie, we tried to figure out what was wrong with the card. We found a BPI, the bank that issued the card, but it was closed by the time we got there. And BPI’s own ATM spit back the card. So we trudged back to the Fulbright office, where Carla Silva (the explainer for us of all things Lisbon) called the main bank office about the card problem. After talking for a couple of minutes, Carla asked me if I had gotten a letter with the card. “Maybe this?”, I replied sheepishly, digging into my side pocket and handing the crumpled paper to her. Well, the bank and the letter explained that the PIN was being sent in a separate letter that would arrive next week. The PIN was needed to activate the card. Guess I shouldn’t have been so diligent about cutting up that temporary card.

And there are many other parts of daily living where I’m flummoxed by my incomprehension. The ATMs offer me choices that I don’t understand. The menus at neighborhood cafes (the ones away from the touristy areas) can turn getting a meal into food roulette. The first couple nights here I washed dishes with blue liquid that turned out to be the stuff you add to the dishwasher to get glass sparkly. Having bulky household supplies like toilet paper and dish detergent delivered is great; but ordering a few items online required half an hour of wandering the virtual aisles before discovering that paper towels are rolos de cozhina. And so on.

Luckily, the Portuguese people I have met have been unfailingly patient with my fumbling attempts at communication. It’s not true that everyone here speaks English. However, even Lisboans who are as monolingual as I am have been cheerfully willing to puzzle out what I am trying to say, act out or, on occasion, draw; sneering disdain of the unlettered is not for them. I may be a stranger in their strange land, but they make even one as language-challenged as me feel welcome.

Riding the rails

I’ve mastered Metro, Lisbon’s impressive subway system. That’s harder than it sounds because there was a small song-and-dance to learn in figuring out how to pay the fare and get through the gates. Carla Silva, our Fulbright Commission guardian angel, had helped us use the fare card machines a couple of days ago. But I flew solo this morning because I had to travel to the big Vasco de Gama mall at Oriente to get some necessary computer items. It felt like Peewee’s Big Adventure to me, but I got there and back, even changing from the Verde line to the Vermelha line, without a problem.

The Metro system here really is wonderful. Unlike the dingy, littered subways of New York or the stark concrete caverns of Washington’s stations, the Lisbon Metro is bright, utterly clean and truly rapid transit. Grafitti is a problem around the city, but not on the subways, at least on the stations I have visited. Indeed, each station is decorated with artistic tile murals. And the trains are frequent and comfortable. The only trick is remembering to pay attention to the stops because the trains stop for only about 10 seconds to let passengers off and on; if you dawdle, you’re off to the next stop.

My next task is to figure out the right buses to take to places not reached by the Metro. The map of the bus system is more complicated than the wiring diagram of a color tv. Happily, today I found Bus 737, which climbs from the Praça da Figueira square in the heart of the city up to Castelo Sao Jorge above our apartment. I don’t mind the 10-minute walk down the twisty stone stairs and tight passageways to the bottom of our hill, but walking back up would be a real grind. Bus 737, small enough to negotiate those impossibly narrow alleys up the hill, drops me a couple hundred meters from the apartment. It’s a leg- and lung-saving bargain at .85 euros.

Lisboans at last

We have been Lisboans for three action-packed days now. Tuesday morning we got off the plane, shuffled for an hour through the passport control line, crammed our hugely overloaded dufflebag suitcases into a cab, and checked in to a hotel near the airport. After a much-needed shower, we met Otília Macedo Reis, the director of the Comissão Fulbright Portugal, for a lovely lunch; Ellyn, the adventurous foodie, ordered pig cheeks and declared them delicious. After lunch, Fulbright staffer Carla Silva helped me negotiate the bureaucracy to get my tax number, necessary for opening a bank account. And we bought cell phones (but I miss using my iPhone!)

Wednesday morning we moved into our apartment just below Castelo Sao Jorge, on a high hill overlooking the city and the Tagus River.

Great place with everything we need — including wifi! After unpacking the enormous bags, we began exploring the neighborhood. Within a few hundred meters we have nice little cafes, bars, and small food markets. We ate grilled whole sardines the size of your forearm and bought the essentials — vinha, queso e pao (wine, cheese and bread, if my utterly rudimentary Portuguese is correct.)

After a good night’s sleep, having kicked the jetlag by spending the day in bright sunlight, we went out this morning for some serious exploration. We walked down the hill to Baixa, the central city shopping district our apartment overlooks, and ate succulent porco leitao (roast piglet — I’m a carnivore) for lunch. Then we boarded one of the Yellow Bus tourist double-deckers for a two-hour guided jaunt around various sights in Lisbon and nearby Belem. I failed to plan for this sunny excursion; with no cap or sunscreen on, I glow in the dark this evening. (Okay, not quite this bad.) After the tour, we took the infamous #28 tram — like a San Francisco trolley car, but more crowded — back up the hill to near home. (Infamous because of tourist-targeting pickpockets; it’s hard to hold on while clutching your wallet nervously.) Finally, after walking a few hundred more meters uphill, an icy shower and chilled vinho verde. A few more days of this kind of hiking around, and I’ll have calves the size of cantaloupes. More adventure awaits tomorrow!

Boa viagem…

We’re packed. Four duffel suitcases filled with two seasons worth of clothes, plus other essentials. For cooking, two good chef’s knives and two microplanes (Ellyn is a great cook). For work and entertainment, two laptops, Kindle, iPad, European phones, camera and bags of chargers, cables, batteries, etc. For my class and workshops, I sent ahead a box with more than 40 pounds of books ($450 via UPS — yikes!) For the bureaucracy, our passports, marriage license, birth certificates, and Fulbright documents. For belt-and-suspenders peace of mind, copies of medical prescriptions and the fronts and backs of credit cards and the passports.

Our condo is in lock-and-leave shape, with friends who will cull our mail and stop by occasionally to flush the toilets. We’ve said our goodbyes to our friends and colleagues, and particularly to our children and grandchildren in Colorado and Florida, as well as to our far-flung other relatives. We’ve told them all to make sure Skype is loaded on their computers so we can video-chat regularly.

We leave Phoenix tomorrow morning, flying to Philadelphia. After a layover of a couple of hours, we take off for Lisbon in time to arrive about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. When we touch down, an adventure that started about 16 months ago, when I first considered applying for this Fulbright chair, will really be underway.

World Cup virgin

I admit I’m a typical American sports fan, by which I mean I’m a fan of American sports. For me, a football has pointy ends and is carried around the field by large men wearing more armor than RoboCop. Until now, the only soccer — what the rest of the world calls football — I’ve seen has been a couple of games played by my six-year old grandson. I don’t know the rules, I don’t grasp the playing strategy and I’ve never understood getting excited about a sport where 1-0 wins are common.

With that said, I had a great time watching the U.S.-Ghana World Cup match today. The U.S. run for the Cup ended with Ghana’s 2-1 win in overtime. But I developed a surprising (to me, at least) respect for the action in what the non-U.S. world calls “the beautiful game”. Now that my home team, as it were, is out of the Cup tournament, I need someone to root for. Naturally, that is going to be Portugal, my soon-to-be home for four months this fall. Most American sports fans will go back to caring about the Major League Baseball season’s run-up to our very parochially-named World Series championship. Or they’ll be looking ahead to the start of football — the pointy-end kind — as NFL and college teams begin to batter each other. But Tuesday morning I’ll be watching as Spain tries to beat my new home team. Go Portugal!

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