Fulbright in Portugal

Steve Doig in Lisbon August-December 2010

Lisbon skyline

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!

Crowd counting (wrapup)

I was amazed and fascinated by all the attention (positive and otherwise) received by my part in estimating for CBS News the size of the crowd at Glenn Beck’s rally Saturday in Washington. My post on that is here. Many have asked to see the Airphotoslive.com images we used in making those estimates. CBS News, which paid for the images, has done a story about the process we used. And many of you will be interested to examine the images in more detail now that CBS News has released them.

To answer a common question for a final time, the images were shot around noon, at the height of the rally. To those of you who were there and believe that the entire crowd area was as packed as wherever you were standing, please note the patches of green and even wide-open areas in parts of the crowd area.

I have spent much of the past three days moderating the many comments I received and trying to answer questions. But I am here in Lisbon to do other things, so it’s time for me to move on. Feel free, of course, to continue to debate this out in the blogosphere; I’m closing out the discussion here. Thanks again for your interest.

[UPDATE: NPR’s “On the Media” program did a nice 8-minute segment Saturday, September 4, on the difficulties of crowd-counting. And here’s a smart op-ed piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times on September 7, written by internationally-known ASU scientist Lawrence Krauss. And in early October I was interviewed about crowd counting by France Info, the country’s national public radio network; their story is here.]

Counting heads

It’s not all porto and pastéis de nata for me here in Portugal. I spent yesterday doing journalism.

I was contacted a couple of days earlier by Curt Westergard, whose Airphotoslive.com company uses cameras on tethered balloons to produce high-resolution aerial photos. He had been hired by CBS News to get images of the crowd that gathered Saturday for the Glenn Beck “Restoring Honor” Tea Party rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. CBS also wanted a credible estimate of the size of the crowd. That’s where I came in.

I started doing crowd estimates back in my Miami Herald days, for local events such as a visit by Pope John Paul II or the annual Calle Ocho street festival. After the 2008 presidential election, I wrote a piece about crowd counting for MSNBC.com, and that led to news media requests for an estimate of the crowd for President Obama’s inauguration. I used a satellite image taken over the National Mall on January 20, 2009, to estimate the crowd there at about 800,000.

Crowd counting, particularly of political events, always is controversial. The organizers of the event inevitably hype their crowd estimate — often grossly — to demonstrate the popularity of their cause, and opponents inevitably underestimate to fit their own agenda. Because of the wild pre-inauguration predictions of how many would attend in person — up to 5 million! — my reality-based estimate was ignored by many left-wing commentators and embraced by those on the right.

Naturally, I expected more of the same about my Beck rally estimate. To calculate it, I used Airphotoslive.com’s very striking images (MUCH larger than the thumbnail posted here)

Airphotoslive.com shot for CBS News

to make density estimates across different zones of the crowd; a variety of ground-level images from news photographers and attendees who posted their photos on Flickr; and Google Earth to measure the square footage of the different zones. Yes, I included the crowd areas under the trees; the full-size Airphotolive images were detailed enough to discern the edges of the crowd even there.

My estimate is that about 80,000 people were at the rally. Ryan Shuler, an Airphotoslive image analyst, used the same images and a different grid-density method to produce an estimate of 87,000. Considering the error margins around our separately-calculated estimates, they are statistically identical. CBS went with the 87,000 figure, which I certainly can accept.

Now the fun begins in the blogosphere. NBC News, the New York Times, and other large media outlets that didn’t attempt a scientific estimate uncritically accepted Beck’s claim of “300,000 to 500,000”. (At least Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s laughable claim of 1 million isn’t being treated seriously.)

The CBS News estimate immediately was vilified by conservative bloggers, and often rabidly-virulent comments from readers are being posted on news stories that mention the CBS estimate. I won’t post more links, but you can find plenty by Googling “beck rally attendance” and similar search terms.

The frothing underscores the problem with hyped predictions of crowd size. Organizers and supporters are forced to insist loudly that the actual crowd met or exceeded their expectations, for fear that the realistic estimate will be painted as a disappointment. The time-honored way to dismiss scientific estimates that don’t reflect the pre-event hype is to claim political bias on the part of those doing the estimate. I am amused to see that those who embraced my Obama inauguration estimate as soberly realistic are now attacking the Beck rally estimate, produced using exactly the same methods, as deliberately biased.

I expect that kind of behavior from partisans on both sides. I am disappointed, though, by the many responsible news organizations that failed to produce their own independent estimates and instead reported only ungrounded hype. Their readers and viewers deserve better journalism than that.

[DOIG afternote: I welcome reasoned comment and questions. Don’t bother sending ideological rants from any direction; I trash those. Also, it may take a while for your comment to be read and approved. I’m in Portugal five hours ahead of DC, also the flood of hits on the site has slowed it way down.]

[UPDATE: Those interested in this topic might also read this followup note.]

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.


Aside from enjoying Lisbon, I’m also planning for my Fulbright work here. For one, I’ve arranged a briefing soon from the Instituto Nacional de Estatistica, the national statistics office of Portugal. The INE is gearing up to conduct the country’s latest decennial census starting early next year. I’m a big believer that reporters should make good use of census data as a way of exploring stories about growth and demographic change. Among other topics, I intend to teach my UNL students how to find stories in the INE’s data-rich website. The INE press office was gracious enough to agree to help me understand how to navigate to the good stuff.

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.

Fulbright Ignite

While my Cronkite School faculty colleagues gather Monday for a pre-semester retreat, I’ll be on a plane from Phoenix to Philadelphia, and then from there to Lisbon!

One thing I’ll miss at the retreat is a so-called Ignite session, where each participant gives a talk using 20 slides, with each slide on the screen for just 15 seconds. I think it’s a great concept. With only 300 seconds to make your point, you are forced to be succinct and direct.

I won’t be there to hear the presentations, but I decided I wanted to participate, at least virtually. So I threw together an Ignite talk on “How to get a Fulbright!” in hopes that some of my colleagues will be intrigued enough to apply for a fellowship themselves someday. I built my 20 slides using Powerpoint, then set up the slide show timings so each slide got about 15 seconds. Finally, I recorded the slideshow and my voiceover comments using ScreenFlow screen capture software, and then trimmed out a few seconds of dead air here and there.

The result is this little movie…

My “Fulbright Ignite” talk to Cronkite faculty

Talk, talk, talk…

I don’t give speeches — I normally just talk (and wave my hands too much while I’m doing it, according to Ellyn.) But my Portugal calendar is starting to be peppered with invitations to give formal presentations to various audiences. I’m always a bit nervous about such things, but I’m honored to do it.

First, I have been asked to welcome the new class of journalism students at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa in late September. I’m glad to do that because I like to communicate my own enthusiasm for the importance of this career to the young people who will lead the way into this new age of multimedia news.

My next confirmed talk will be a more formal occasion. The Comissão Fulbright Portugal will be holding its “Fulbright Brainstorms 2010” conference on October 22-23 at the  Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. The theme of this year’s conference is “Meeting Global Challenges Through Education and Citizenship”, and several distinguished speakers have been invited to contribute. Read the announcement here.

My first thought was “What do I know about meeting global challenges? My challenges tend to be very local!” But on reflection, it’s a fine topic for a reporter to think and talk about. I’m an ardent believer that independent watchdog journalism is essential to educating people with the information they need to be effective citizens, not only of their country but also of the world. So I will be teaching my students this fall about tools and techniques they can use to analyze public records and examine public problems. At the Brainstorms conference, I plan to make a strong case for the role of serious journalism in helping ensure that government, business and social institutions operate to the benefit of the citizens they serve.

Once I arrive (in less than two weeks!!) I expect there will be more invitations to talk, in addition to my weekly class with my students. UNL Prof. Antonio Granado and the staff at the Comissão Fulbright Portugal are alerting other universities and newsrooms that I’m eager to visit and talk, talk, talk…