Fulbright in Portugal

Steve Doig in Lisbon August-December 2010

Lisbon skyline

Good time to go

Not that I needed much encouragement, but last night Fate gave me another good reason to head to Portugal soon. Let me explain.

I live in a nice condo that overlooks what our city, Tempe, calls the Town Lake. Tempe Town LakeTempe Town Lake actually is a formerly dry riverbed that was turned into a lake 10 years ago thanks to a visionary idea by Arizona State University architecture students back in the 1960s. Their idea was to put dams across each end of the riverbed and then fill it with water to create a lake. After years of study and planning and finally construction, the lake was created in 1999. For a decade, it has been one of Arizona’s major attractions, the site of triathalons, boat races and many recreational  activities like fishing and sailing. In short, a huge success.

But the dams necessary to keep the water in had to be built to accommodate the occasional spring floods Phoenix gets when we have a particularly wet and snowy winter in the high country upstate. To do that, the two dams actually are built of rubber that is inflated to form the necessary barrier, but deflated if the upstream water flow needs to be released. For a decade, this has worked well. But Arizona’s sun is brutal, and there were signs that the rubber dam was beginning to deteriorate from sun damage. The city, in fact, had scheduled for replacement of the dams to begin today.

Too late! Last night as I was lying in bed just about to turn off the lights, a siren we had never heard before began to wail. If I had been in Kansas (tornado country) I would have rushed to the storm cellar. As we quickly learned thanks to Twitter and news flashes on tv, the downstream dam had suddently burst a few minutes earlier. The lake, filled about 16 feet (5 meters) deep with nearly a billion gallons (about 3.7 trillion liters) of water, began to rush downstream. The sirens, which had never been used, were warning anyone downstream — particularly transients who sometimes set up encampments in the riverbed — that a flash flood was coming.

By sunrise this morning, Tempe Town Lake was nothing but soggy swampland, a few puddles of standing water that soon will dry up in the Arizona heat. Tempe Town Puddle

The mayor conceded to reporters that all the decaying vegetation and dead fish would begin to smell pretty soon, and we all expect an influx of mosquitoes and flies and other aggravating bugs. Ugh.

So, it turns out that it’s now a great time to be leaving Tempe for a few months. City officials are confident that the dams will be replaced and the lake refilled with water by November 1. I feel bad for my friends and neighbors who will be dealing with the messy period before things get back to normal. But I’ll be glad to miss all those problems. Thanks, Fate. If the dam had to break, this was the right time to do it (at least for me!)

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!

Prepping for class

It’s been a very busy two months since I last posted on this blog. First, I went to Perugia, Italy, in late April to talk about precision journalism at the International Festival of Journalism there. The trip was a great reminder of the pleasures of travel to other countries, although there was considerable anxiety about our itinerary because of the volcano in Iceland that was disrupting air travel over much of Europe.

After we returned, there was the usual end-of-semester crunch of projects and grading to be done. As soon as the semester was over, I got involved as a consultant to an investigative project being done out of the Cronkite School by our News21 students from around the country; it’s fun for me to be doing actual journalism on occasion. Then last week I talked about newsroom math and the coming U.S. decennial census data at the annual Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in Las Vegas. Then Ellyn and I enjoyed a fun visit from our son and daughter and their families, which now include five grandchildren.

But it’s quiet around here now, which means I can turn again to preparing for my classes this fall at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. Prof. Antonio Granado, whose class I will be working with, has given me the details of how the class will operate. We have some ambitious plans for putting the students to work on projects that we hope will turn into stories that can be published.

I have begun laying out a schedule of content for the class, which will cover negotiating for public records, analysis of data, statistical tools, social science methods such as polling, and lots of work with computer programs such as Excel, Access, SPSS and ArcMap. I intend to keep them them very busy.

A particular challenge for me (other than my inability to speak Portuguese) is finding interesting data for the students to use as they learn to use the software. Naturally, I want them to use data about Portugal and Europe; there’s not much point in teaching students in Portugal how to work with American campaign finance data or crime reports. Preparing for computer-assisted reporting talks in other countries is always a reminder to me of how easy we American journalists have it compared to international reporters when it comes to getting government data. Our public records laws give us access to government information that simply can’t be obtained in many other places.

Even so, it’s encouraging to see that more and more international data is going online these days. When I was in Italy, I did an Excel demonstration that used reported crime data from more than a hundred Italian cities. Many of the reporters there were unaware that they could get at such data, and were amazed when I told them I found it by digging around on the net from my computer here in Arizona.

As I prep for Portugal, I have begun to find useful datasets at sites like Pordata, the Instituto Nacional de Estatística and the Instituto de Meteorologia. I’m also scouring around for mapping files that can be used to show how important the mapping of data patterns can be to finding and telling stories. It’s like a treasure hunt, with data instead of gold nuggets.

Mais vinho, por favor!

As I count down the days until we actually go to Lisbon, I’ve been spending lots of time trying to familiarize myself with all things Portugal. This includes hours spent wandering the streets of Baixa, the Alfama and Castelo via the wonders of Google Streetview. This is fascinating, but frustrating — the scenes I see make me want to be there right now to hear the streetcar going by and smell the scent of baked goods coming from the pastelaria. It also includes hours trying to get comfortable with at least the social basics of Portuguese, but my ear for languages definitely is made of tin. Rosetta Stone, ever the patient computer tutor, makes me repeat a word or phrase over and over until it finally decides that the noises I make at least vaguely approximate what it wants to hear from me. I find I can understand an increasing percentage of written Portuguese, thanks mostly to reading hundreds of tweets posted over the past several weeks by some of the active bloggers listed in the links on the right. But understanding spoken Portuguese? Not so much yet.

I am succeeding greatly, however, in another area of preparation — appreciation of Portuguese wine. Thanks to a recommendation from a reader of this blog, I have discovered vinho verde. This so-called “green wine” (clear as water, actually) is light, tasty, slightly fizzy, and wonderfully refreshing when deeply chilled. I was delighted last weekend to find that one of our local grocery stories, Sunflower, stocks three different labels of vinho verde: Fâmega, Casal Garcia and Gazela. Even better, they are ridiculously inexpensive — just $6 to $8 a bottle. Naturally, I bought a couple of bottles of each, and I’m working my way through them, a couple of glasses a night. I’m no wine snob; I can’t wax rhapsodic about fruit, nose, finish, and notes of this or that. For all I know, real connoisseurs of vinho verde may dismiss these labels as Portuguese plonk. But they taste great to me. So I’m adding a new phrase to my growing list of must-use Portuguese: “Mais um copo de vinho verde, por favor.”

LeCool guidebook

I’m waiting somewhat anxiously to hear from the Consulate of Portugal about my application for a four-month visa, a packet I sent nearly a month ago. In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying a wonderful guidebook to Lisbon sent to me by Melissa Mapes, an ASU student who spent the past year in Portugal on a Fulbright herself. The book, titled “A Weird and Wonderful Guide to Lisbon”, is published by LeCool Books — and both the book and the publisher are aptly named. It’s lavishly illustrated with quirky graphics and collages of Lisbon scenes. It’s not your parents’ touristy Frommer’s; instead, the chapters clearly reflect the interests of the backpackers in the LeCool target audience: Sleeping, Eating, Drinking, Going Out, Party Calendar, etc. Even though my dance-’til-dawn days are long gone (okay, never were), Ellyn and I are eager to try many of the restaurant, bars, fado clubs and back-alley strolls that the authors recommend. We’ve decided to make a long list of all the places to see and things to do that LeCool (and Frommer’s) recommend, and check them off as we accomplish them. It’s going to be a tough job, but I think we’re up to it!

More preparation

I’m still gathering all the documentation needed for a long-term visa for Portugal. I’ve requested a letter from my local police department stating my lack of a criminal record. I also had a set of fingerprints taken to send to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which will check my record across the country. Happily, I’ve led quite a boring good-citizen life; the only other time I was fingerprinted was when I enlisted in the U.S. Army 39 years ago. I also just had my full medical exam, including tests for everything from tuberculosis to heart disease, and my doctor has certified my good health. I’ll be sending off the visa documents to the Consulate of Portugal in San Francisco this week. The medical report already is on its way to the Fulbright doctors who will decide if I’m healthy enough for the rigors of Lisbon!

And thanks to the folks at Fulbright Portugal, who put a nice notice about my selection on their newly redesigned website. It even includes a link back to this blog!


Like all too many Americans, I am monolingual. Yes, English has become the world-wide lingua franca, which means that there’s little pressure for most Americans to learn other languages. But I am always embarrassed about that when I visit other countries, particularly in Europe, where so many people speak two, three or even more languages.

About three years ago I spent two months in Salamanca studying Spanish; the result of all that is I now can speak it like a bright Spanish 2-year-old. As for my fluency in Portuguese, well, don’t ask. I am told by my soon-to-be colleagues at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa that my linguistic disabilities won’t be a problem — their students are quite competent with English, of course.

Even so, I will be making a great effort before my arrival in Lisbon to learn enough Portuguese to avoid sounding like the Ugly American. To that end, I bought the first set of Rosetta Stone lessons on Portuguese and have been working my way through the exercises, a good mix of reading, listening and speaking. Rosetta Stone apparently only offers the Brazilian flavor of Portuguese. That’s not surprising, I guess, in that Brazil is by far the largest Portuguese-speaking country, with about 90% of all the Lusophones in the world (that’s people who speak Portuguese.)

I don’t know if George Bernard Shaw’s famous observation that America and England are “two countries separated by a common language” also is reflected in differences in words, idioms and pronunciation between people in Portugal and Brazil. But based on my stumbling experience with Rosetta Stone, I am sure no one in Lisbon is going to mistake my accent for Brazilian. The speaking part of the lessons is done into a microphone, and I find I have to repeat words over and over until the computer actually recognizes what I am trying to say.

One thing is clear to me: Spoken Portuguese sounds VERY different from Spanish. Unlike the varying ways letters can be pronounced in English, Spanish pronunciations are pretty straightforward. Not so Portuguese, which uses several diacritical marks to morph the way many letters are pronounced. But my Spanish is so bad that I actually can read simple Portuguese about as well as I can Spanish. The reason, of course, is that many words have common Romance roots, though the Portuguese spellings can be quite different.

Until someone genetically engineers an actual babel fish, the next best thing for the linguistically challenged like me is Google’s translation tools. I have installed the Google toolbar, which recognizes when I look at a web page in Portuguese and automatically translates it into something close to English. I also can copy and paste text into it from the growing number of Portuguese and Brazilian journalists and educators who I’m following on Twitter.

As for having face-to-face conversations in Portuguese, in reality I hope only to reach a level of fluency that allows me to handle the most essential communications, like these:

  • Perdoe-me. Eu só falo Inglês.
  • Quanto é que custou?
  • Mais vinho, por favor.
  • Onde fica o casa de banho?

I’ll let you know how that works out.

Fans of Lisbon

I’m starting to hear from colleagues and students who have been to Lisbon. They tell me how wonderful it is and how lucky I am to be going there. (I know that!) One student, Lauren Peikoff, visited Portugal numerous times during her semester last year studying in nearby southern Spain. She sent me a nice note of congratulations.

“You will thoroughly enjoy your time in Portugal,” Lauren wrote. “The people are so kind and so intelligent. I couldn’t even believe it when a waiter at our restaurant one night was fluent in five languages. It speaks about the character of the Portuguese.”

View from the castleLauren also sent me a gallery of hundreds of photos she took during her visits there. I’ll share just one, a view to the west from Castelo de Sao Jorge, which is above the apartment where we will be living. I get a good sense from this vista that I’m going to be doing a lot of climbing.

Another friend from way back in high school days, Deirdre McCarthy, tells me she has had a long love affair with Portugal.

“I can guarantee you’ll be doing a lot of hill-climbing in Lisbon, but all the better to work up a good appetite for hearty Portuguese fare,” Deirdre wrote. “You will love the markets; I remember shopping at the fascinating fish markets in the south of Portugal (Algarve) where my parents had their house for nearly 40 years. Wonderful memories.” And she adds: “You will love Portugal– the landscape, the warmth of the people, the food and, oh, my, the hardy wines and fabulous Ports….”

Okay, I’m really convinced now.

Medical clearance

Another must-do before getting final clearance for the Fulbright fellowship is having a full medical exam. The form requires me to fill out whether I have had any of about 50 illnesses or conditions, anything from hayfever to cancer. Then my doctor has to fill out a separate form covering the head-to-toe exam, and include the results from a battery of tests, including blood, urine and x-rays. Moreover, my wife has to have a similar exam done. All the paperwork then is sent to the Council for International Exchange of Scholars in Washington, where a Fulbright doctor will decide whether we are fit enough to live overseas for several months.

Such an exam makes good sense, particularly for Fulbright grantees who might be going to some of the less-well-developed places in the world. Happily, we both seem to be in pretty good health, and Portugal certainly has good medical facilities if some illness did pop up while we are there.

Visa for Portugal

Most Americans who visit European countries don’t need to apply for visas because most of those visits are for less than 90 days. However, we will be spending more than 120 days in Portugal, which kicks in the requirement to get an appropriate visa for that length of stay. I shouldn’t complain because we Americans make most visitors go through a real song-and-a-dance to get a visa to visit our country. Well, Portugal is no different when someone from another country, like me, seeks permission to stay beyond the usual limits of a tourism visit. I’m now in the process of gathering the requested documentation for all sorts of required things:

  • · An application form received from the correct Consulate General (in our case, San Francisco).
  • · A passport-quality photo (2″x2″)
  • · A letter describing my purpose in Lisbon and my economic status (whatever that is.)
  • · A letter from my local police department issued in the last 90 days describing my arrest record. Also required is a form saying it’s okay for the Portuguese police to look up my record there.
  • · A photocopy of my passport.
  • · A medical certificate from my doctor saying that I’m in good health. Interestingly, consulate form stresses that the signature must by legible — that could be a problem, knowing most doctors!
  • · Proof of accident/health insurance.
  • · Processing fees totaling more than $120.
  • And even with all this, we’re told that family members can’t apply for a visa until they arrive in Portugal. I assume there will be no problem with this, but one never knows, do one? (To quote Fats Waller!)