“Flying into Porto in September, the skies were gray, a portent of the damp days to come. Neither the smoky Sá Carneiro airport, nor my lost bag and endless negotiations for its recovery lessened my excitement as I got into a taxi and headed past the port of Leixões toward Foz, where the university was located. The driver and I discussed urban sprawl, commuter woes and the new metro system then being drilled through Porto’s underlying granite. By the time I had checked into the hotel and eaten the first of many meals of salt cod, boiled potatoes and vegetables, my Portuguese had emerged from mothballs and I was eager to locate the Catholic University and explore Foz.
I had made arrangement to meet Kurt Stewart, the Fulbright coordinator for the UCP, the following day, and I was happy to be alone to re-encounter the country where my wife and I had effectively begun our adult lives some thirty-three years before.
My first arrival in Portugal had been on a day in May 1969, a week after graduation from college. That day, just off the plane, I was in a gym in Lisbon, talking to reporters from the Diário de Lisboa and watching the team that I would play basketball for the following two years, Ginasio Clube Figueirense, from the fishing town of Figueira da Foz, roughly midway up the coast between Lisbon and Porto. The Portugal of 1969 was sunny, welcoming and virtually untouched by the twentieth century. Marcello Caetano had another five years to continue António Salazar’s fascist legacy before the Revolution of 1975 and the turmoil of transition that followed, leading ultimately to membership in the European Union and a lifestyle and social and economic profile that today resemble closely those of other modern European nations.
In 1969, however, I had the privilege of explaining my presence in Portugal to the PIDE – the secret police – and watching the busses of shock troops waiting for student demonstrators to arrive in a boarded up Baixa (downtown Lisbon). Many of the friends I made during that time were involved in clandestine activities of various kinds. O Canto e as Armas, a book of militant poetry by the then-exiled Manuel Allegre, was given to me by a friend in Figueira. I sang a José Afonso song on stage at the Casino in Figueira at a time when Afonso himself had lost his teaching job for political reasons, and was being chased out of impromptu concerts at the University of Lisbon by policeman with batons. There were certain benefits to foreign-ness and presumed innocence. These realities of 1969, however inescapable, did not define my experience.
My wife Linda Benedict-Jones joined me later that summer in 1969, and we began a period that would ultimately last four years, including two years in Lisbon (where I played for Sporting Clube de Portugal) during which we accomplished things that have defined our subsequent existence in many ways. Linda became a photographer, exhibiting at venues up and down the country, including at the Incrível Almadense across the Tagus River from Lisbon in Almada, which we visited again in 2002. We both became multilingual in Portuguese and French (I later added Chinese and Spanish). We learned to savor food and wine and the pleasures of extended conversation around the table, an art that Americans have only recently begun to enjoy at home. We made lifelong Portuguese friends, though in 2002 some needed to return from the Diaspora in Paris, Luxembourg and Brussels to see us on their native soil. We gained a political and cultural education through friends, reading and classes at the universities of Coimbra and Lisbon.
It was this background that propelled me to seek the Fulbright to in the first place. In the intervening years I had acquired a doctorate in French Literature and Film and become involved in the creation of multimedia materials for the teaching of languages. It would be the film and multimedia that would define my contributions to the UCP curriculum. At the UCP I taught a course on New Chinese Cinema (based on a Paris degree in Chinese and a similar course taught at my home institution of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), and taught a core course in Interactive Scripting that made use of my multimedia experience. These decisions were made in concert with Kurt Stewart, Alvaro Barbosa and Carlos Caires of the UCP, based on my resumé and e-mail discussions prior to departure. Practical considerations were coordinated with Stewart and the Lisbon Fulbright Commission staff, including Paulo Zagalo e Melo, the Executive Director, Rita Bacelar and Otília Macedo Reis, who I was able to meet during one of several trips to Lisbon for Fulbright-sponsored gatherings and personal visits. I gained an appreciation for the integrity and the grace of the Lisbon contingent, and the patience and good will of all concerned in getting Fulbrighters installed and contributing.
Things did not always go according to plan, of course. Housing in the Foz area was in chronically short supply for everyone, much less for visiting short-term academics with high standards needing furnished accommodations. I ultimately found my own in a stressful search process that would have been difficult without my Portuguese language ability and previous experience. I turned out to be on my own in a class I had been scheduled to team-teach, with a week to prepare. With the help of UCP faculty, especially Carlos Caires, I was able to swing into action without a hitch. The UCP is officially bilingual, so that giving class in English was understood to be a positive benefit for the students. I soon realized that for a certain percentage of each class, follow-up or discussion in Portuguese was useful or even necessary. Both classes met once a week for three hours, a schedule which is uncommon for undergraduates in the U.S., but seemed to be the norm in the Department of Sound and Image and the UCP.
Aspects of what Americans call “campus culture” took getting used to. There were few opportunities (department meetings or social events) to familiarize visitors with colleagues and departmental rules and practice. I was able to get everything I needed by asking questions and faculty and staff were consistently helpful, but there was no planned introduction to the way things work at the UCP. The university has no student residences, so all students commuted, many worked, and there were often conflicts between work and study which professors were asked to arbitrate through extended deadlines and understanding. Flexibility was an absolute necessity, from accepting that starting a class fifteen minutes late actually represented exceptional discipline to realizing that student English language ability and work schedule variables required a sort of sliding scale in the evaluation of their work. Nevertheless, I had many outstanding students, some who were adequate, and others who should not have been in school-an experience similar to that of professors worldwide, no doubt. The Department of Sound and Image is in and of itself a bold experiment to supply creators and technicians to a media industry that struggles constantly with small-market limitations at the national level.
Outside of the classroom Linda and I took full advantage of our opportunities to travel, visiting Figueira, Vila Franca de Xira and Lisbon multiple times, the Minho twice, the Douro, and the Alentejo. Though we were in Portugal for three months, we rented a car only twice for three days. We found the combination of busses, taxis and trains to suit us perfectly for longer excursions, and walked everywhere locally. We invested in memberships at a health club minutes from the UCP and, between walking and regular workouts, maintained our weight in spite of indulging our appetite for good food with few restrictions. Though we had a fully equipped kitchen, we mostly ate out, finding at least a half-dozen good restaurants within walking distance in Foz itself, one or two of which were exceptional in any context. We regained our love of vegetable soups and fish and rediscovered a national wine production that has grown in both variety and quality in a more entrepreneurial industry. We enjoyed friends old and new, the latter group including Joan Braderman, a fellow Fulbrighter at the UCP, and her husband Bob Reckman.
People asked me frequently what had changed the most since the Seventies, and my responses were mostly anedoctal, though some major differences were impossible to miss. A country that has been a wonderland of regional cultures, in spite of its small geographical area, now finds those cultures under increasing assault by freeways, shopping malls and national and international media. The current social plagues no longer spare Portugal, as they might have in isolationist fascist days, and the arrumadores (car parkers), the equivalent of the American “squeegee” people (windshield cleaners), are often heroin addicts, a population which also suffers from a high incidence of HIV. Like most European countries, Portugal is now pushed and pulled between a desire for social equity and liberal economic policies, and this debate is open and lively among the social partners, including unions and political parties from across the spectrum. After frequently seeing full churches and having witnessed a partially successful general strike, I commented that Portugal was perhaps the last remaining European country that could boast of both practicing Catholics and practicing Trotskyites.
On a visit to Ginasio, where I had been one of the first Americans to play basketball in Portugal, I found a new arena, a fully professional team with American, Lithuanian and Spanish players, where the lingua franca was English. Much had not changed, nevertheless: I was greeted with abraços (hugs) by former teammates (now club directors), staff and my Figueira friends, and received an ovation from the crowd at a game, many of whom had not yet been born when I played in Figueira. Warmth and hospitality have always characterized our reception in Portugal, in spite of the fact that global anti-Americanism was at its peak both in 1969 during Vietnam and in 2002 during preparations for the war in Iraq. Then, as now, we were accepted as individuals, though on many occasions American policies were the subject of animated discussions with our Portuguese friends and acquaintances.
The benefits of an experience like the Fulbright always go in both directions. It is to be hoped that contact between American and Portuguese university practice and colleagues leads organically to increased comprehension and even joint projects. Culturally more of the benefit may accrue to the Americans. Educated Portuguese are virtually all multilingual and have extensive international experience in post-colonial, trans-Atlantic and European contexts. The same cannot be said of the U.S., where less than ten percent of undergraduates will choose to study a foreign language of any kind, and even many faculty are strictly monolingual. For my wife and I, it was our first sojourn in Portugal that broke that mold. The Fulbright experience has rekindled our desire to be engaged with Portuguese educational and cultural realities in a continuing fashion. Linda has been in contact with Teresa Siza of the Centro Nacional da Fotografía in Porto about a possible exchange of exhibitions with the gallery she directs here in Pittsburgh. I hope to arrange funding to collaborate with multimedia developers and linguists on Web-based courseware for teaching continental Portuguese in the U.S., where such materials are in short supply. Whatever happens, we will treasure the people and places that we were fortunate enough to (re) discover last autumn in Portugal.
Fulbright Scholar at Universidade Católica Portuguesa, Porto, AY in 2002/2003