One curious custom sets the Portuguese apart from everyone else: many places throughout the country — hotels, museums, restaurants, every sort of business, government buildings, even private residences — include the latitude and longitude coordinates of their location, down to the second, as part of their address or on their marquee, and as a matter of course.
Roads and streets tend to be well-marked, often with beautiful azulejo porcelain tile plaques either integrated in the cladding of a building or on short, free-standing, purposed pillars on street corners. There’s no getting lost in Portugal. However, when my wife and I occasionally got confused on our latest bike ride down the coast of the little country, we’d stop and ask for directions.
Legend has it unknown Portuguese cod fishermen made the first post-Viking discovery of this continent.
Invariably — and this too sets the Portuguese apart, informants provided precise, logical, understandable, and memorable directions, in spite of a bit of a language barrier. And they were concise. No arm waving in vague directions, no extraneous, confusing, and unnecessary information such as, “You’ll pass Dom Lambuças’ petisqueira on the left . . . well, actually it’s up Rua Magalhães about 30 meters . . . but . . . never mind; if you see the Dom — you’ll recognize him because he always wears a black beret — tell him João will come by later for a café. Then, past Magalhães and just before you get to . . .” etc. You get the picture.
Is it any wonder that nobody beats the Portuguese at locational analysis? Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator is credited with launching the so-called Age of Discovery — when Western Europe “discovered” the world, beginning with the discovery and colonization of the Madeira Islands in 1418. It was Portugal’s response to Spain’s claim to the Canary Islands (the author’s grandmother’s home), which the Portuguese had actually discovered 72 years before, in 1346. Mustn’t let the Spaniards get ahead.
Under Henry’s tutelage discoveries and claims followed apace. He is credited with developing the caravel, a newer, faster, lighter, and more maneuverable ship, along with founding the University of Lisbon, to promote science, and encouraging maritime development in Lagos and Sagres, at the southwest corner of Portugal, from which most of the exploratory voyages originated.
By 1427 Portuguese fishermen and navigators had discovered the Azores and reached the Sargasso Sea, stepping stones to North America and the cod fisheries off Newfoundland, where, legend has it — and seems reasonable, though there is no documentary record until the late 1400s — unknown Portuguese cod fishermen made the first post-Viking discovery of this continent. It was on their initial Atlantic voyages that Portuguese navigators pioneered the charting of wind and ocean currents, thereby facilitating more and farther explorations under safer and more predictable conditions.
Portuguese navigators went on to round Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, establishing claims in what would become Guinea Bissau, Congo, Angola, and Mozambique on their way to colonies in India (Goa) and China (Macau). When Columbus set off to cross the Atlantic in 1492, he took a Portuguese pilot, Miguel de Aguiar, to guide him. Twenty-seven years later, another Portuguese expedition, under Ferdinand Magellan, became the first to circumnavigate the earth.
* * *
We’d booked a modest B&B — up four flights of stairs — in the Alfama district of Lisbon, adjacent to the Tagus River and the cruise ship docks. Jet-lagged and not fully conscious, we walked two blocks over to the Panteão Nacional to clear our cobwebs. Perched atop a hill, this baroque domed church has been repurposed as a memorial to Portugal’s heroes, with cenotaphs of Prince Henry and Vasco da Gama under its colossal dome. Afterward we headed to a Goan Indian restaurant for a curry unlike any one might find in the US.
They don’t get many Americans; one hotel clerk at a resort town said ours were the first American passports he’d seen.
After a recuperative interlude that included kitting up and tuning up our bikes we took a train up to Caminha, a small town on the northwest corner of Portugal next to the Galician border. Though Portugal is otherwise very clean, we were disconcerted by the toilets on the carriages, which uninhibitedly drained directly onto the tracks. A sign above requested users to refrain from using the toilets while the train was stopped at a station.
We’d come to Portugal to bicycle its 1,200 kilometer coast, designated as EuroVelo Route 1, which follows mostly dedicated bike paths and little-trafficked roads. Visiting off-season provided cooler biking temperatures, fewer crowds, and cheaper lodging. We were often able to snag €200 hotel rooms or apartments for €35 a night.
Heading south, our first day on bikes was cold, foggy, and drizzly. It didn’t take long to get lost and have to backtrack, but we still reached our destination at Esposende. Oftentimes we’d cross paths with Fatima and Way of Saint James pilgrims on foot, though we got the impression that their pursuit was more avocational than religious.
In two days we arrived in Porto — from which the country gets its name — home of fortified port wine, and a stunning city built on the banks of the Douro River atop steeply rising hills. We took a day off to play tourist, visiting the Real Companhia Velha, Portugal’s oldest winery still in operation.
We’d read in various guide books that English, not Spanish, was the preferred second language for communication. I was skeptical. After all, written Spanish and Portuguese are about 75% mutually intelligible to either speaker. However, spoken Portuguese sounds more like French spoken with a mouthful of pebbles. Perhaps the preference had something to do with inter-Iberian rivalry?
Though the Portuguese are generally kind, helpful, outward-looking, patient to a fault, and impartial, when pressed they’d opine that Spaniards are chauvinistic and soberbios — arrogant, full of themselves, and drunk on their individual exceptionalism. When, during exchanges, my English failed them, I’d try Spanish. Many wouldn’t warm up to a semblance of mutual intelligibility until I revealed that I was from Cuba and not from next door.
On the other hand, they consider Brits warm and fun . . . in contrast to the Dutch, whom they perceive as nice but cold as cod. They don’t get many Americans; one hotel clerk at a resort town said ours were the first American passports he’d seen. When asked about Chinese mainlanders . . . just a hard, silent stare.
By 1385 intermarriage between the Portuguese and Castilian royal families led to complications, remonstration, fingerpointing, and finally war. With English help, the Spanish invaders were decisively driven back.
Portugal has nearly always remained a separate entity on the peninsula. Under the Romans it was a distinct province. But after the Moorish conquest of Iberia the entire peninsula (except for Asturias . . . mostly) became part of the Muslim caliphate.
The Vikings mainly bypassed it, not tempted by olives and bitter wine (though they did raid Lisbon once). In 1139, toward the end of the centuries-long Reconquista, Afonso Henriques, leading Christian armies and laying siege to Lisbon, won such a decisive victory that he was crowned king. In 1143 he declared the western sliver of Iberia an independent country: Portugal.
Perhaps the animosity toward the Spanish and the lovefest with the English began in 1308 when King Dinis, anticipating trouble with the Spanish, built 50 fortresses along the frontier with Castile and signed a commercial and friendship pact with England. It was an alliance that would last for centuries . . . and came none too soon. By 1385 intermarriage between the Portuguese and Castilian royal families led to complications, remonstration, fingerpointing, and finally . . . war. With English help, the Spanish invaders were decisively driven back.
But then it happened again. In 1580 Spain invaded Portugal — this time successfully, with Felipe II of Spain crowning himself King of Portugal. The union lasted until 1640, when Catalonia, that ever-rebellious, linguistically distinct Spanish province at the opposite end of the Iberian Peninsula, rose — not for the first or last time — in revolt against Madrid. The Portuguese, sensing an opportunity to regain their independence, rebelled. King Felipe III of Spain, on the horns of a dilemma, was loath to fight on two fronts: he chose to keep Catalonia and let the Portuguese go.
Port wine proved irresistible to palates weaned on West Indian sugar and gin, which had recently been legalized but was worse than rotgut and often flavored with turpentine.
The Spanish attacked again in 1762 . . . but again were repelled with English help. Finally, after Napoleon’s invasion of the peninsula in 1807, the English again came to Portugal’s rescue. The close relationship between the two countries is evidenced not just in the Portuguese preference for English over Spanish, but also in the port wine industry. Most of the brands sport English names: Taylor, Graham, Croft, Cockburn, Warre, Sandeman, et al.
Around 1700, when the bibulous Brits were deprived of their wine during one of their many skirmishes with the French, they turned to their old ally Portugal. Trouble was, would Portuguese wine survive the trip to London? Back then, the valley of the Douro — which had been a source of wine since the Roman occupation — produced wines that were dark and astringent . . . but rich in flavor. To make them palatable, the vintners added aguardiente, the local home brew (now tastefully referred to as “brandy” and often coming from France). With the added fortification, not all the sugar in the grapes was allowed to become alcohol . . . hence, a very sweet wine. The combination — strong and sweet — was irresistible to palates weaned on West Indian sugar and gin, which had recently been legalized but was worse than rotgut and often flavored with turpentine.
Today, Portugal has many wine producing regions outside of the Douro Valley. To our taste, nearly all of the regional wines — both reds and whites — but especially those from the Alentejo and Minho, are both excellent and cheap.
* * *
We left Porto up the steep hills of Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro, turned right towards the coast, and rode though desolate, fire-scarred pine forests growing out of sand dunes — on a badly potholed road that deterred traffic. The burned trees, extending through nearly three days of riding, were a depressing sight. At one spot, a logging operation was harvesting the charred timber. Later we found out that the fires had been intentionally set two years previously by unknown arsonists in order to harvest the protected littoral forests. Forest fires, especially fast-moving ones, burn the crowns, leaves and understory (which in this case was minimal), leaving trunks charred but largely untouched.
The riding soon became monotonous. To pass the time we indulged in imaginative conversation which, missing our Shiba Inu, at home inevitably turned to dogs. “What would we do if we found a litter of abandoned puppies out here?” Tina floated.
Later we found out that the fires had been intentionally set two years previously by unknown arsonists in order to harvest the protected littoral forests.
I ignored the question, hoping the topic would evaporate into thin air while desperately searching my mind for a more engaging topic when, a few minutes later, thin air materialized into a dog. It appeared out of nowhere, perhaps 20 kilometers from the nearest village. Golden, medium-sized, and very fetching, it was thirsty and hungry — friendly but cautious. After circling us three or four times it paused to smell and evaluate us . . . and then approached Tina’s cupped hand full of water, which it lapped up enthusiastically. Next, two sweet buns soaked in water. What to do? The endless dune littoral held no food or water for this lost puppy.
Suddenly, again out of nowhere, a VW microbus slowly approached. It was the first and only vehicle (other than a logging truck) we’d seen all day. Tina waved it to a stop. Inside, the archetype of a California surfer, but totally Portuguese — young, blond, muscled, camping out of his van while scoping out secret surf spots — rolled down his window and looked at us inquisitively.
We told him about the dog. Fernão said it wasn’t his. We asked him if he’d at least take it to the nearest town, since we couldn’t and the dog would exhaust itself trying to follow us. He looked reluctant but got out of the van and met the dog, which, following a few canine formalities warmed up to him. The dog’s intelligent circumspection made the warmth mutual.
But the dog wasn’t willing to jump into the van without a bit more foreplay. We coaxed, we petted; it essayed, it sniffed, it circled. Finally Tina put a piece of bread in the van and, after one more hesitation, he (he’d now become a “he” to us) jumped in. In that short time the dog had won our hearts. Tina hoped the surfer would adopt him.
Inside, the archetype of a California surfer, but totally Portuguese — young, blond, muscled, camping out of his van while scoping out secret surf spots — rolled down his window and looked at us inquisitively.
Much later that afternoon, after we left the burnt forest and were passing a village, the surfer van passed us and honked a greeting. The dog was riding shotgun. Had the surfer decided to keep him?
We overnighted in Figueira de Foz, a large city, then detoured to a one-lane, off-the-beaten-path road that slalomed through coastal marshes. Coming from the opposite direction we spotted the VW van. Fernão stopped and greeted us like long-lost friends. It was such an unlikely meeting. And he didn’t have the dog.
He said he’d stopped at the first village after he’d taken the dog. But no one there had lost a dog. At the next larger town, one with a rescue shelter, he was told he was in luck: it wouldn’t be euthanized — one dog had just been adopted, so they had room for the found hound. They checked the dog for a chip, since Portugal requires all dogs and cats to be chipped. This dog lacked one. Fernão left the dog.
However, driving away, he reconsidered. He’d grown attached to Erizo, the name he gave him. I asked him if he knew what that meant in English and explained that the second half of “sea urchin” was a double entendre in this case, and was an appropriately serendipitous name.
Fernão called his family to discuss adopting the dog. He ran a small outdoor adventure business that included (besides surfing) rock climbing. His work would require the family to mind the dog frequently. They’d agreed, and he was on his way back to the shelter to formally adopt Erizo. Tina danced a little jig of delight.
Once past Foz de Arelho our coastal route actually hugged the strand. Beautiful sandy beaches with intermittent salient headlands and cliffs reverberated with the full onslaught of the Atlantic’s swell, with 30 to 40 major reefs and beaches receiving regular and predictable waves three to fifteen feet high, depending on the season — a surfer’s paradise. In 2009 Supertubos, a beach near Peniche — where we rested a day at a hostel catering to surfers — was chosen as one of ten stops on the ASP World Tour, the most prestigious international surfing event. Just north of Peniche some of the world’s tallest waves can be found. In 2011, pro surfer Garrett McNamara set the world record for the tallest wave — at 100 feet — ever ridden.
* * *
One innovation in Portuguese grocery stores that we’d like to see over here is their fresh orange juice machine. A metal basket full of oranges sits atop a machine where, after you press a button, the oranges, one by relentless one, drop into the machine, where they are subjected to unspeakable atrocities. A spigot at the bottom allows the customer to fill either a half- or full-liter plastic bottle.
Riding into Lisbon we encountered a variation on this at a free-standing juice kiosk catering to passersby on the seaside concrete boardwalk. A young couple operated a blender attached to a bike’s drive chain, a contraption they touted as “green juice” — because it uses muscle power — not electricity or oil — to operate it. The husband pedaled the bike while the wife fed the blender. We couldn’t resist a smoothie. To further capitalize on the sale, they invited us to help save the world by climbing aboard and blending our own drink, which we did with delight.
At approximately two-thirds of the way down Portugal’s coast, Lisbon was a welcome rest stop that allowed us to further sample its charms. Carolina, our hostess at Balby’s B&B, where our bike boxes were stored, wanted us to meet her boyfriend, Jose, because she would be leaving on her annual November vacation — to Auschwitz, of all places — and would be absent upon our return at the end of our trip. Jose would take care of us.
Jose was a 34-year-old Ph.D. candidate in technology, specializing in transportation logistics under the twin auspices of a local university and MIT — but he just wanted to be known as a “regular guy.” Lucky for us, he was a political junkie. National elections had just been held, giving the Socialists another, albeit larger, minority win with 36% of the vote. But this time, Jose said, they refused to depend on the Communists — who suffered heavy losses — for legislative support. Instead, they declared a coalition with the Animal Rights Party, which saw a big increase in its share of the vote.
“What do they know about fiscal policy? The price of dog food?” he asked rhetorically, sarcasm visibly distorting his lips.
To further capitalize on the sale, they invited us to help save the world by climbing aboard and blending our own drink, which we did with delight.
European Socialism isn’t generally the government-owns-the-means-of-production sort — though there is enough of that — but rather a mushy, middle-of-the-road, mishmash of welfare state corporatism and whatever — in social or economic policy — might “seem” reasonable at the time. One of our other hosts even credits the Socialists with doing a decent job of navigating the country’s economy back to normalcy after the Big Recession — but then added that Germany’s EU fiscal prudence probably had much to do with their success.
For perspective, while in American political terminology social democrats are near the far-left of the political spectrum, in Portugal they are the center-center right opposition.
Campaign signs still hung on every lamp post, with the Communist platform promises placards particularly prominent:
- Raise all wages
- Raise all pensions
- Free childbirth and care
“Who’s going to pay for all that?” Jose again exclaimed. He complained that the Portuguese welfare state is too generous, taxing his hard-earned money and giving it to layabouts. “Why should I have to pay for someone else’s shiftlessness and lack of planning?” he asked, adding that the system does not provide incentive to work.
Portugal is quite crime free, ranking 13th worldwide in safety and, according to another informant, is the third least crime-ridden country in the EU. Its ranking would no doubt be higher were it not, as reported to me more than a few times, for gangs of Gypsy, er Roma, girls at tourist hot spots distracting visitors to pilfer purses; something we did not remotely experience. Trust is ubiquitous; when booking rooms on our ride we were never asked for a credit card.
While in American political terminology social democrats are near the far-left of the political spectrum, in Portugal they are the center-center right opposition.
The country, according to Jose, is the easiest EU country for a foreigner to enter, attracting Muslim refugees who use it as a waystation to the wider European Union. Few remain. A good thing, he adds, because they test the Portuguese tolerance for diversity through their own intolerance.
One Venezuelan expat working as a waiter reported that wages are modest, but then so are prices compared to the rest of the EU. And having worked in Spain, he preferred laidback Portugal.
Portugal has more restaurants, cafes, bars, and hole-in-the-wall mini-markets than I’ve ever seen. Even Jose was at a loss trying to explain how they survived. The nation ranks 39th out of 190 countries in ease of doing business (the US ranks 6th). One very modest East Indian entrepreneur from South Africa running a tiny one-man grocery store said he’d worked all over the world and preferred Portugal for its hassle- and corruption-free atmosphere. Jose concurred but added that corruption in high places was an endemic problem: Socialist politicians own private rentseeking enterprises that obtain anti-competitive favoritism either through legislation or informally.
One novel albeit odd example of this is the ubiquitous Loja China stores. These sell a wide variety of cheap Chinese goods — housewares, hardware, electronics, furniture, clothing, etc. Jose said they are run by Chinese who get a five-year operating contract from the government with a wide variety of regulatory, tax, import duty, and other exemptions that allows them to undercut local prices, with the result that they’ve driven many local enterprises out of business. How the Loja China stores got in and obtained preferential treatment and whether they’re part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative, I was unable to find out.
* * *
We left Lisbon on a ferry across the Tejo River and continued riding down the coast, passing the ruins of a Roman fish-processing settlement. Occasionally we’d stay at hostels if we could book a private room. But, at our hostel in Vila Nova de Mira Flores, we felt a bit out of place.
Registration was on an electronic pad, with requirements I either lacked or declined to provide, such as a cellphone number and an email (yes, that’s right, I don’t own a cellphone and do not provide my email promiscuously; full disclosure — I celebrated my 70th birthday while on this trip — an old fuddy-duddy). Plus I found it impossible to navigate the pad. When I asked for a paper registration, the young lady said she didn’t have one and stared disconcertingly at me. Fortunately, I had a wife who took over the formalities.
The hostel was managed by millennials obsessed with sustainability, recycling, gender neutrality, and emanating a “positive vibe.” Most of the staff and clientele sported dreadlocks — with or without extensions — or mullets, wore torn jeans or floor-length skirts, and chain-smoked. The snack bar offered only organic and vegan dishes. Thank Buddha there was a full bar with a talented bartender, and all new guests were entitled to a free “welcome” drink.
Tina and I asked for mojitos. After expertly mixing he set them aside and approached an oversized tin on the bar. Then, with a dramatic pause and meaningful gaze, he declared that inside the tin was one of the greatest inventions ever: “It’s ideas like this that will save the world”.
Wow! Salvation in a can! We couldn’t wait to see this.
Thank Buddha there was a full bar with a talented bartender, and all new guests were entitled to a free “welcome” drink.
He opened the tin and pulled out a one-foot-long hollow tube made out of pasta — a straw — broke it in half, inserted each half into our drinks and gave us an inclusive, knowing look, expecting, I suppose, our amazement. When I told him we didn’t use straws, he pulled out the pasta…undoubtedly thinking, “A mojito without a straw? Perish the thought”.
But a bartender’s job isn’t just to mix and serve drinks. He needs to connect with his clientele so as to sell more drinks. The awkward spaghetti straw moment required finessing. He offered us a shot — on the house — of a drink popular with the young set, for getting tanked fast. It was either Portuguese or Brazilian hard liquor with a dollop of honey. Then he engaged us with, “Did you know that Portugal is the only country to bloodlessly overthrow a dictatorship?”
He was referring to the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, when an army faction backed by popular support overthrew the Salazar dictatorship, which had been in power since 1928. Though I knew next to nothing about Salazar or the Carnation Revolution, I did know about the Philippines’ People Power, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the revolution that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Still, I tried not to be too contentious — we wanted to hear him out and learn more about Portugal.
According to our bartender, Salazar was a vicious Fascist dictator who set Portugal back years and tortured and murdered whoever opposed him — the veritable spawn of Torquemada. Over the course of 1,200 kilometers we encountered no statues, street names, memorials or public references to him. But once I did a little research, however, I found the truth to be more, much more, nuanced.
Yes, Salazar had a secret police, imprisoned and tortured Nazis and Commies without due process, and rejected democracy. Still, he allowed limited — but real — political freedoms.
António de Oliveira Salazar rose to power as a reformist during a series of unstable governments in the 1920s and ‘30s. Deeply Catholic, he opposed both Nazism and Communism; capitalism and socialism, creating an Estado Novo organized under what he called Authoritarian Corporatism. He favored stability over democracy; nationalism over internationalism; and conservative family values.
In the 1930s all of Europe was deeply polarized between the far right and the far left. Salazar distanced himself from Italian Fascism, and though helping Franco during the Spanish Civil War, did not indulge in the extremes the Spanish dictator resorted to. Salazar strongly and publicly criticized both the Nazis — in particular the Nuremberg Laws — and the Communists, and managed to keep Portugal neutral during World War II while maintaining Portugal’s 600-year alliance with Britain and even secretly helping the Allied cause. Unlike Spain, which didn’t join NATO until 1982, Salazar made Portugal a founding member. And again, unlike Spain’s passive reception of Jewish refugees, Salazar actively provided for their asylum.
And yes, he had a secret police, imprisoned and tortured Nazis and Commies without due process, and rejected democracy. Still, he allowed limited — but real — political freedoms. Salazar died in 1970, but his regime continued — to me, a sign that the people had not reached any sort of breaking point with the status quo.
Many of the soldiers stuck carnations, which were in season at the time, in their rifle barrels. As soon as the populace got wind of the affair, thousands of Portuguese took to the streets
However, between 1961 and 1974 the Portuguese African colonies — along with many other European African colonies — revolted, vying for independence. The Salazar regime, to its detriment, fought the attempts. By the time of Salazar’s death the Portuguese military had become so overextended and the fiscal burden on the economy so heavy that the Carnation Revolution was almost inevitable.
It was actually a military coup led by officers opposed to the Colonial War and demanding democracy. The gathering place for the troops was the Lisbon flower market. Many of the soldiers stuck carnations, which were in season at the time, in their rifle barrels. As soon as the populace got wind of the affair, thousands of Portuguese took to the streets. Within six hours Prime Minister Marcello Caetano, who’d succeeded Salazar, resigned. Only four people died, killed by the Estado Novo’s political police before they capitulated.
Spain kept a close eye on events, with anticipation as to how its own post-Franco succession might unfold. A year and a half hence, after a long illness, El Caudillo, Francisco Franco finally died.
* * *
In a couple of days we reached Sagres, on Portugal’s southwest corner, where Prince Henry the Navigator had lived and died. Instead of riding south, we’d now ride due east through the Algarve, Portugal’s beach and tourist mecca, toward the Spanish province of Huelva. The contrast was stark. While we’d been rained on nearly every day along the western coast, the sun shone daily on the Algarve.
At Vila Real do Santo Antonio on the Portuguese-Spanish border we boarded a train back to Lisbon, where Jose met us at our B&B. Again, he wasn’t short of opinions. He resented the Germans controlling EU fiscal policy. He didn’t know what to think of Trump, figuring that if, out of a two-hour speech, the media picked one negative comment and nothing positive, the media were probably biased and unreliable.
The contrast was stark. While we’d been rained on nearly every day along the western coast, the sun shone daily on the Algarve.
As to the impending impeachment, Jose couldn’t understand the brouhaha over Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president, “What’s the big deal? Heads of state are supposed to negotiate and make deals.” Adding, almost as an afterthought, “And why should the US bear the responsibility for defending Europe? Europe should get its act together and defend itself, and get more involved in the Middle East, its next-door neighbor.”
As a parting gift, Tina gave him and Carolina a copy of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose.
* * *
An epilogue: we flew Air Canada back home, its price and bike policy clinching the deal. But we were in for a surprise in Toronto, where we had a four-hour layover. US Customs and Immigration had an extraterritorial presence there, allowing it to process transient passengers headed for the US. After our passports were scanned, Tina and I were ordered into one of three queues for processing. While the other two moved with dispatch, ours only grew longer. Only one agent was processing us, and he was “taking care” of a mullet-coiffed young Asian dude for over an hour.
After the first half-hour in line without any progress, the murmuring turned to loud complaints. Trump’s name was taken in vain. Folks feared missing their connecting flights, and many did — no small inconvenience. If a passenger stayed on to the next day, he was no longer “in transit” but had to report to Canadian Immigration, no doubt extending his unplanned stay even longer than just catching the next plane. It was already late at night.
When we had spent a whole hour in line, one more agent — without any sense of urgency — opened another kiosk for us. An hour and a half after that, we finally got called up. He peppered us with lots of questions, followed by, “Please follow me.”
“Sorry Mr. Miller. There’s a bad Bob Miller out there. Same name, same birthday.”
Tina and I were escorted to a back room and told to sit. Our escort, unprofessionally grousing, handed our passports to another agent behind a long counter. More sitting and waiting while others were processed ahead of us, sometimes after immediately arriving. Finally, after an interminable wait, the man behind the counter called us up, handed me my passport and told us we could go.
Noticing the puzzled look on my face (I wasn’t about to ask what the silly delay had been about), he smiled and offered, “Sorry Mr. Miller. There’s a bad Bob Miller out there. Same name, same birthday.”
“But is he also 70 years old?”
“Yup. But he was born in Detroit. Where were you born?”
* * *
On the flight to Phoenix we sat next to a young Canadian of East Indian origin, a Ph.D. tech candidate. He was heading for a two-day research project in Parker, Arizona for his thesis. Every winter thousands of Canadian and northern US “snowbirds” head to the Lower Colorado River in RVs and trailers and park in Parker, Quartzite, Yuma, and other warm, bare desert spots. The conceit of this young man’s dissertation was how to improve these pilgrims’ computer connectivity while on the road.
I turned away and went back to my book, Congo: The Epic History of a People . . . much more substantive. But Tina, ever the socialite, continued engaging him. The conversation soon turned to politics. The Canadian held conventional views, held them with a confidence and glib certainty that was difficult to counter. “What I don’t understand about Americans is their anti-vax position and their opposition to universal healthcare. I mean, what does it say about a society that refuses to provide healthcare to its people?”
But Tina, always quick with an answer — we’d heard that “society” canard many times — was particularly eloquent today: it says, she replied, “that the people are proud, self-reliant, and responsible for themselves and don’t want others to be forced to pay for their healthcare and don’t want to be forced to pay for others’ healthcare.”
I’ll never forget the startled look on that young man’s face.