A Texan’s sentimental journey through a civilization in decline.
For anyone under the age of 35 who has been to Europe, 1975 marked the passing of an institution. Arthur Frommer’s classic best-seller, Europe on $5 a Day, is gone, the victim of price increases undreamed of when it first appeared seventeen annual editions ago. Its place has been taken—predictably—by a Frommer book called Europe on $10 a Day. The new book is unlikely to last seventeen years.
Like virtually all the other young Americans who toured the continent in the Sixties, we took along our well-thumbed copy of Five Dollars. The time was 1963, that zenith of American optimism, when people still quoted Kennedy’s inaugural address and it was easy to assume that his promises to Insure the Survival and the Success of Liberty carried a price tag as nominal as the bargains Frommer said awaited us in Europe. Three of us, straight from college, spent a summer there and discovered that Frommer was not far wrong. We bought a Volkswagen at the factory, put 11,000 miles on it, averaged $7 or $8 a day for lodging and three meals, and came home thirteen weeks later each about $1200 poorer, not counting the purchase price of the car.
Europe was cheap—cheap enough for students to take for granted that they could travel in the comfort of a private automobile, spend the night in hotels or first-class pensions, and eat in restaurants well above the average. We puzzled only briefly over the paradox of unemployed American twenty-year-olds sitting alongside German executives in Munich’s swanky Walterspiel, dining on Forelle Blau and quaffing Brauneberger Juffer Auslese ’59. The Walterspiel, after all, was a Frommer recommendation, and hadn’t Frommer told us we would be living cheaply, as the Europeans did? All but the most expensive tier of travel amenities was open to us then, including much that was quite beyond the reach of any blue-collar worker on the Continent; and anything we could not have, Frommer deftly let us rationalize away as something not worth having. “By the mere act of overpaying,” he intoned from the pages of Five Dollars, “Americans [rob] themselves of all the thrill and flavor of Europe. . . . Who needs it? Who needs the waltz competitions and the planned picnics of a Biarritz resort?” He made us happy as we pictured ourselves among artists and “real” Europeans, feeling real pity for our gullible American elders over at the Hilton being hoodwinked into trading all our authenticity for a room with private bath. And so we ordered another bottle of that Juffer, and a chateaubriand for two. For one.
It never occurred to us that there was anything topsy-turvy in all this, that the resentment we occasionally encountered might be traced to the affronts and humiliations which we and thousands of other spendthrift young Americans unwittingly left in our wake as we cruised wonderstruck through class-conscious Europe. We simply assumed that a convenient warp in the nature of things had ensured that Americans would have more money than anybody else, and have it in perpetuity—an assumption that mirrored everything else we saw about America’s preeminent place in the world. We thought the Age of Frommer would never end.
Frommer himself would say it never has. From his headquarters at Arthur Frommer International, Incorporated, in New York, he oversees an empire of travel clubs, hotel chains, and travel guides (36 of them, from India to Guatemala and Australia to Morocco). But diversify as he may, he will always represent the time when Americans had Europe in the palm of their hand. Notwithstanding Ten Dollars, that time seems gone for good.
For the sad truth is that inflation, devalued dollars, and a rising standard of living in Europe have already combined to make Ten Dollars an anachronism. On the surface, everything seems fine; Frommer’s infectious good cheer reassures the reader that a $10 budget today is as adequate, if not as lavish, as a $5 budget was for us twelve years ago. Huge chunks of the book, in fact, have been carried over intact since at least the early Sixties: the little hotel near London’s Russell Square that promises to “burn the bacon” for Yankee guests; the Parisian restaurant that put a copy of the book in its window, doubled its prices, and has been “mercilessly yanked from this edition”; the Australian gentleman who found Bavarian sausage skins too tough for his teeth. But that same English hotel now charges $7 for bed and breakfast, making the rest of the day a little on the spartan side. For lunch, the book suggests that you can cut your costs by making do on a half-order of curried rice. Frommer is as convincing as ever for the proposition that you can sleep indoors and avoid starvation on $10 a day; the difference, in these past twelve years, is that the quality of European low-cost living has deteriorated from something approaching luxury to something approaching self-denial. And practicing self-denial in Europe is agony indeed.
Not by accident does the new edition of Ten Dollars contain a final chapter entitled “Europe on Fifteen Dollars a Day.” A more realistic level, to match the experience Five Dollars guided us to in 1963, would be $25 or $30. It is symptomatic of Frommer’s own recognition that time has run out for the philosophy which served him so well, that his Arthur Frommer Hotel in Amsterdam charges $27 for a double with breakfast in the dead of winter, and its “high season rates are, unfortunately, not in the budget range.”
Today’s European, who observes the American student with a Day-Glo orange backpack vagabonding on a second-class Eurailpass, has the satisfaction of believing that some sort of order has finally been restored. The party has ended, vanished as conclusively as those crew cuts we wore in the cocky days when everything seemed possible. After Prague summer, Vietnam, and devaluation, America has discovered that there are no bargains anymore. Just twelve years ago, the three of us watched Kennedy on his triumphant tour of Europe, standing on the shimmering white steps of Rome’s Victor Emmanuel Monument as the world still absorbed his Ich bin ein Berliner speech. Now, in a sultry Italian summer, Americans unfold the Herald Tribune to learn that another president has flown home with a briefcase of dubious promises, purchased from the Russians in exchange for the borders and the hopes of Central Europe.
Prices are higher all around.
The English essayist Hilaire Belloc once asked how someone can tell when his own civilization has begun to decline. It is a question that comes to mind on a visit to Europe in 1975—partly because Western Europeans’ pessimism about their future has become commonplace, and partly because the signs of deterioration are conspicuous, if you want to interpret them that way. Most Texans instinctively resist asking such questions because we have traditionally held a placid faith in our ability to overcome obstacles rather than accommodate ourselves to them. Fatalism, consequently, is not our style; but it is increasingly the style of Western Europe, where it has begun to cast long shadows.
This pessimism has nothing to do with the rhythms of everyday life—the interaction with other people, the pleasant human scale to things—that refresh and renew American visitors accustomed at home to a more impersonal existence. These are essentially unchanged. It is instead a vague feeling of slippage, an awareness that Europe is reaching the end of its hegemony. Somehow, even in the Sixties when Europe feared becoming an economic appendage of the United States, it never lost faith in itself. But now, less than a century after its leaders presumed to partition the continent of Africa among themselves, their successors have seen the disappearance not only of their colonies but also of their confidence that they can control their own destiny.
“The days of the affluent society are gone,” warns the Swiss national bank director. English newspapers counsel readers to buy their Christmas presents in June in order to escape the country’s government-sponsored inflation that now exceeds 25 per cent a year. Who any longer plans five years ahead—or even two? Europe waits. The vignettes that follow offer glimpses into the anatomy of decline: the government of Italy unable to provide coins to lubricate the country’s commerce; the audible shred of social bonds in Belfast, where industrialism has played itself into a dead end; the long sunless journey up the Baltic coast, leaving behind what we know as Europe; the uncertain fate of the democratic spirit in Lisbon.
At bottom the question is one of faith in institutions. On Rue Darn in Paris, the Russian Orthodox Church attracts each Sunday a sparse group of worshippers—Russian aristocrats dressed in fading elegance who found refuge in Paris after the Bolshevik Revolution. They who came as children now totter, white-haired and lame, and share with tourists the sonorous liturgy of the choir. Will their children’s children come here? The thought is irresistible that the ancient Russian church is close to extinction on its home soil, that the motions and the singing are propelled by atavistic memories of cold childhood prayers a lifetime away from France, that 50 years from now the basilica will resound to none of this. Bearded patriarchs, incense, a scene from Anastasia; slavosloviye velikoye, choral intonations, the Kiev chant at vespers:
Prishedshe na zapad solntsa,
Videvshe svyet vechernyi,
Poyem Otsa, Syna, i Svyatago Dukha, Boga.
Having come to the setting of the sun,
And beheld the light of the evening,
We praise the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: God.
Afterwards three old men with collection baskets walk among the crowd. Hand-lettered signs explain the purpose each contribution serves: For the Church, For the Choir, For the Poor. On this Sunday in 1975, most coins are dropped into the basket for the poor.
Numismatics on the Autostrada
Italy is perhaps the wrong place to look for signs of trouble. From time immemorial travelers have returned frond there with dire forecasts of catastrophe, yet Italy always manages to survive. But acting on the principle of in trivia veritas, you can find omens in your pocket change these days.
Imperial Rome had a lively tradition of debasing its currency. Nero surreptitiously pumped alloys into official “silver” coins, and Caracalla introduced the double denarius that was not double at all. But at least they kept up appearances, which is more than can be said for their political heirs in modern-day Italy, who preside over a coinage of candy and brightly colored bits of perforated paper. Not that the government has started minting lemon drops; not yet. But the coins they have issued are simply disappearing, leaving Italy with a painful shortage of small change that has been worsening for more than two years.
Since the government issues no bank notes smaller than 500 lire (800), merchants have taken to making change with postage stamps and penny candy. A few 100-lire coins can still be found, and occasionally one sees a 50-lire piece; but usually the last nickel or dime’s worth of change comes back in odd forms reminiscent of the Age of Barter.
At Milan’s grandiose nineteenth-century Central Station, a woman selling postage stamps gives change in jawbreakers; at toll booths on the country’s high-speed autostrade, clerks pay back the last few lire in sticky postage stamps or smooth brass telephone tokens.
Every small purchase becomes a minor challenge. No one wants to deplete his tiny stash of coins by accepting a bill. At Florence’s state-run Uffizi Gallery, a customer is induced to empty his pockets in front of the ticket-seller to prove he lacks the exact admission charge: unluckily for him, he has forgotten the three 100-lire pieces he squirreled away this morning in his left-hand pocket; out they come, and into the ticket-taker’s hand they go, as the tourist watches in dismay. In Lucca, a merchant gives stamps in change on Thursday, then refuses to accept them back in payment for something else on Friday.
You find yourself hoarding anything round and metallic, treating the receipt of a coin as something akin to the accidental discovery of a semiprecious stone. The constant uncertainty about whether you will be able to make the most trivial purchase produces zestful forays into deceit: commercial dealings become a test of wills, as buyer and seller try to bluff each other into producing the appropriate coins. The sequence is always the same: customer tenders bank note; merchant scowls at bank note; merchant makes coin-shaped gestures with hands; customer shakes head sadly; merchant scans customer’s eyes for the telltale signs of a lying soul. It is a measure of the genuineness of the shortage that an unfavorable verdict by the merchant can result in a curt No Sale.
With refusal always imminent, there is a sense of quiet panic to ordinary business dealings in Italy. Simple transactions founder for reasons that would be incomprehensible anywhere else, sustaining an underlying murmur of chaos all around. You do not realize how readily you have adapted to the situation until you leave Italy and discover that it takes days to shake off your instinctive hoarding of the next country’s abundant coins.
Belfast: In Search of Van Morrison
Down the Cyprus Avenue
With a child-like vision leaping into view
The clicking clacking of the high-heeled shoes
Ford and Fitzroy, Madam George . . .
Now you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row,
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
In the rain, hail, sleet and snow
—Van Morrison “Madame George”
I had just been told that Cyprus Avenue was in East Belfast when the waitress dropped the dish. The lunchtime crowd in the downtown pub fell absolutely silent, as though a radio had been suddenly switched off. A palpable chill momentarily filled the room while a hundred brains registered and re-registered the sound; a no-less-palpable warmth washed back a second later with the simultaneous realization that it was just some splintering crockery. Everyone laughed.
The level of tension in Belfast is awesome, even after many months of “cease-fire” between the IRA Provisionals and British troops. It hits you in the face the moment you arrive at decrepit Great Victoria Street Station, where placards apologize for the absence of rest rooms, telephones, or baggage check facilities, all of which have been blown up once too often. Across the street stands the smoke-blackened shell of the Adelphi pub, windows broken, awnings askew. You step next door to the high-rise Europa Hotel and realize it is protected by two cordons of barbed wire, barricades, and a guard-post housing a private policeman who searches every arriving car with the thoroughness of a Laredo customs officer. He eyes you tensely as you set three pieces of luggage on the floor, each of which could conceivably contain enough gelignite to vaporize everything within 50 feet. Immediate suspicion of one’s fellow man is a poisonous thing. Belfast carries it further than any other place you are likely to find in the English-speaking world.
But when you ask the guard if you could use the hotel phone to call a friend, his whole mood changes. He looks at you intently for a fraction of a second and then he smiles. “Of course,” he says. “You can leave your luggage right here with me ” In that brief moment he has assayed your accent, recognizing a twang that identifies you instantly as an outsider.
In the sullen urban horror that is Belfast 1975, an American accent is your best protection—if you get the chance to use it. For in Northern Ireland no place is truly safe. You can be walking along the street and be shot by someone in a passing car; you can answer the door and get a bullet between the eyes. In the past year, Belfast itself (population, 360,150) has seen 3000 shootings and 3500 bombings. The violence claims many of its victims not for who they are, but for where they are: a Protestant walking through a Catholic neighborhood may be shot by a carload of his co-religionists who mistake him for a bloody Fenian Papist, a tourist who unfolds a street map in a residential neighborhood may be gunned down by a sniper who merely sees a nosy stranger and does not check accents first.
Most travelers have had the experience of arriving m a new place and thinking it does not quite fit their preconceptions; we usually exaggerate the unfamiliar. Not so in Belfast. I have never met anyone who said he had imagined Belfast to be worse than it actually is. There is no more spiritually negative place in Western Europe.
Outside the pub where we were having lunch, steel mesh as heavy as a cyclone fence shielded the windows from the possibility of a Molotov cocktail. As in most of other Belfast establishments, an elderly guard was posted at the door. At downtown intersections, turnstile barricades manned by local police and British troops halted shoppers, who were allowed to pass through only after their parcels had been searched and they themselves frisked. Metal detectors and additional searches were customary at the entranceways of department stores and banks. Locked doors and buzzers were commonplace at smaller businesses. Traffic was barred from the town center except for delivery trucks, which were impeded by concrete barrier checkpoints and probed by tommy-gun-toting soldiers. On the fringes of downtown, signs that once designated public parking areas had been plastered over with posters saying NO VEHICLE MAY BE LEFT UNATTENDED AT ANY TIME; any car, of course, could hide a bomb. To all of this the citizens of Belfast have become accustomed, viewing it with the same docile toleration that Americans extend to airport security checks.
Radiating outward from the center were residential blocks as devastated as anything in East Berlin: caved-in buildings, acres of rubble, charred stores with gaping holes blasted in their sides, and rows of abandoned homes, their windows hastily bricked up by the authorities to thwart snipers. Twelve-foot walls, interrupted by army checkpoints draped with camouflage, separated Catholic districts like the Lower Falls from the adjacent—and visibly more prosperous Protestant ones. Belfast proves once again that human beings are capable of adapting themselves to almost anything.
Inside the pub, before the episode of the broken dish, our initial political discussion had digressed to the subject of Van Morrison, one of the most original rock musicians of the decade, who, I knew, had grown up in Belfast before moving to California. My companions—a graduate student at Queens University and a serious-minded partisan of the IRA were politely mystified about why an American visitor would want to know where he had lived. Though the author of such songs as “Into the Mystic” and “Cyprus Avenue” is arguably Belfast’s best-known son on our side of the Atlantic, I soon learned he is almost unknown over there. The more people who professed never to have heard of him, the more curious I became. I decided to try to find his old home partly because the challenge appealed to me—locating an obscure, untouristed spot in a strange town with virtually no information to go on—and partly because whether I found it or not the search would afford a way to avoid concentrating on the wreckage all around, while leading me on a serendipitous tour of neighborhoods I might not otherwise have seen.
My IRA friend spotted a girl across the room who volunteered the information that Morrison had lived somewhere in East Belfast, not far from Cyprus Avenue. Visits to the city tourist office, the BBC, Dougieknight’s Record Shop, and Morrison’s old manager pinpointed the house on a street called Hyndford, three miles from the place where I was staying. I wandered out past the barricades to see what I could find.
Less than five minutes from the quiet middle-class neighborhood around the University, I turned down a small staircase between two buildings. It led to McClure Street, an isolated Catholic section comprising a single quarter-mile row of houses adjacent to a railroad track. McClure Street was an early casualty of the fighting in Northern Ireland. Wheel-less cars with smashed windshields were scattered along the curb; fully four-fifths of the row houses were bricked up. Several were burned. The occasional brightly curtained window in an occupied home seemed oddly out of place, and did nothing to alleviate the morbid silence that gripped the street. The scene was typical of numerous tiny Catholic enclaves in Belfast, too small to be defensible, easy prey for nightriders. Most residents of McClure Street had fled long ago to already overcrowded Lower Falls.
Near the gas works where McClure Street meets Ormeau Road, I passed a beleaguered pub called Jubilee Arms, its walls still blackened from repeated bombings. A crude swastika was splashed above the doorway. It was here that Van Morrison’s mother sang the blues a decade ago and more, when black southerners like Memphis Slim and Arthur Crudup performed in Belfast.
To a white southerner today, the prejudice and discrimination of Northern Ireland seem incredible chiefly because our own variety is so distinctly racial. We expect to be able to see the differences on which the prejudice turns. In Belfast they cannot be seen. Catholic and Protestant look alike; a Catholic can ride a taxi down Falls Road, pass through a few central city barricades, and be completely indistinguishable from the Protestant shopper at the next counter. Behind the ruined facades of the Markets District near the Jubilee Arms are Catholics with the same accent and the same appearance as their counterparts in a working-class Protestant District like Sandy Row. Almost every visitor who comes to Belfast responds to the destruction by saying that it does not make sense; the American southerner finds himself adding, because everybody looks alike. Racial prejudice, you realize, is the easiest kind.
“Religious” prejudice masking cultural and class differences seems exotic only to us; it has been familiar to Europeans for centuries. The Irish variety has its roots in both: class, because the Protestants have traditionally cornered all the good jobs, even if they had to share some of the bad ones with the Catholics; and culture, because the Protestants see themselves as British and the Catholics as Irish. Each group regards the other as aliens in the wrong land. In important ways, the crisis is another of Europe’s age-old border conflicts, its nature obscured by the fact that the ‘”British” side of the line has jumped across the Irish Sea to another island.
There are times, however, when you feel that all these conventional reasons fall short of explaining the intensity of hatred in Northern Ireland. You recall the miles of dour, two-story row houses, often separating families by flimsy walls just one brick thick, their exteriors decayed and buckling. You look at business districts where nothing new appears to have been built in nearly a century. Walking past the bricked-up doorway of a place like the once-prosperous City Hide Skin & Fat Co., you realize that Belfast is just another jerrybuilt Victorian mill town now come to the end of its road. More than half its homes are said to be classified officially as unfit for human habitation; and many of them, like the abandoned factories and shuttered businesses, were hopeless long before the troubles began. Against that backdrop, destruction leaves a lesser imprint than it would elsewhere, and life is so unrelievedly bleak that sectarian violence becomes—terrible as it may be to say so—a form of entertainment. Many visitors to Northern Ireland have remarked on the paradoxical way in which the deepening tensions seem to generate tighter communal bonds within each camp. It is true. And the result seems to be a willingness to blow each other up because there is nothing else more interesting to do.
These reveries were interrupted by the sight of a small missile arching up from underneath the bridge I was walking across. It landed at the feet of the pedestrian in front of me, who jumped halfway across the sidewalk to avoid it. There was no explosion. We looked again and saw that it was an onion, hurled by an unknown hand for unknown purposes. In Belfast’s charged atmosphere it was enough to unnerve us both for several blocks.
At the corner of Hyndford Street and the Beersbridge Road I stopped to ask directions at an electrical shop and found myself on the delivering end of a similar shock. As I strolled in the front door, unmindful of the small grenade-sized camera in my hand, three customers and a clerk stopped in their tracks. My accent was the only thing that broke the tension. “Do you know which one of these houses used to be Van Morrison’s?” I asked. Relieved, the clerk referred me to a neighbor, Mrs. McCarter, who did the same double take at the sight of the Instamatic. (How do you hide a camera without making it look even worse?) She pointed out the house: number 125, a tiny, lower-middle-class red brick row building with blue trim. Children played along the well-kept street as though violence were an ocean away from this Protestant neighborhood. I thanked her and hiked up the hill to see the mansions on Cyprus Avenue before heading back to join my friends.
It was late afternoon. I met them by prearrangement at a well-fortified pub near the University. To get inside I had to pass a surly watchman, who was preoccupied with slapping and cursing a staggering drunk. Inside, their political discussion seemed a direct continuation of the one at lunch. “We were getting worried about you,” they said, indifferent to my smug mood of triumph at having located the house. We chatted a while, and I allowed myself a disparaging remark about the watchman.
“Oh, him,” said my student friend. “Yes, he is an abominable man. I don’t know why they keep him on.”
“Not at all like that other fellow,” added his companion. “Everybody liked him. Too bad, it was.”
After an uncomfortable pause, the student said, “Someone threw a bomb in the door last month and killed him.”
If a visitor to Berlin in the 1920s had wanted to travel to the farthermost boundary of the German state, he would have gone toward Moscow, not Paris. Until World War II Germany stretched 430 miles to the northeast, past the old Prussian town of Tilsit; now the eastern border of a divided Germany lies just 39 miles beyond the center of East Berlin.
That fact is a reminder of just how drastically the concept of “Europe” has been altered for postwar Americans. When we speak of Europe we almost always mean its western fringe: we admit the Russian satellites to our definition grudgingly, as though a visit there was really a journey beyond Europe, not a journey toward its center. To some parts of this region more than others we are strangers; in none is our alienation more complete than the vast expanses along the southern Baltic coast. Whatever draws us to Prague, Budapest, or the Balkans does not bring us to interrupt the deep sleep of the villages and fields that once were known as Baltic Germany. They do not figure in the Europe we know; we forget they are there.
The drive from East Germany to Stettin, Danzig, and beyond is the forgotten journey of our time. It takes you into the empty heart of Europe, past the farming villages of Mecklenburg where church steeples rise like ghostly galleons from the plains, past the abandoned customs-posts that once guarded the frontiers of the Polish corridor, deep into a Prussian landscape where German is heard no longer.
The better part of whole provinces like Pomerania and East Prussia—formerly as German as Kansas is American—are part of Poland now. The ethnic Germans have, for the most part, fled or been expelled, and the influx of Poles has not sufficed to restore the population. There is a sense of hollowness, of loss, of too few people rattling around in too much space, an ironic reversal of Hitler’s Lebensraum. Historic place names, redolent of Prussian vainglory, have altogether disappeared: Deutsch Krone is now the town of Walcz, Johannisburg is Pisz. East of Danzig the unfinished Berlin-Koenigsberg autobahn remains as the workmen left it in 1940: cloverleafs and overpasses intact, the finest highway within 200 miles—but a useless tangent that connects nothing, because no one any longer travels from Berlin to Koenigsberg. You could not do so even if you wished to: the USSR annexed the upper half of East Prussia after the war, and at the point where the Soviet border bisects the autobahn, no one is allowed to cross. Koenigsberg itself—once the home of Immanuel Kant—today is named Kaliningrad, and it is closed to western visitors. You are left with this vacant fragment on which you can drive in perfect solitude for 20 or 30 miles, alone with the memory of the only traffic that ever clogged its lanes: the Wehrmacht, rumbling toward the Russian Front in 1941, and the Red Army, chasing them back in 1945.
Danzig itself, rebuilt, is once again a thriving commercial port. But the visible activity cannot blot out the pervasive sense of distance and separation; even Warsaw seems nearer to the pulse of Europe. Time was, before the War, when the fate of the Free City of Danzig inflamed European passions much as Israel does today; and the rhetorical cry “Why Die for Danzig?” was the motto of those who preferred appeasement to antagonism of the Reich. Today there is no one under the age of 45 who ever asked himself that question, and as the world reckons its affairs, Danzig is less consequential than Rangoon.
This strangeness, this sense of time suspended, is present in East Germany too: not so much in East Berlin, nor the southern Saxon capital of Dresden, but in Mecklenburg and upper Brandenburg; the westward extension of old Prussia’s Baltic plains. Drive a Volkswagen through a town like Greifswald or Pasewalk, and in the rearview mirror you will see people turn and stare as if your car, manufactured in a German factory less than 200 miles away, were something exotic. Ask a hotelkeeper in Rostock for the address of a hotel in Munich and he will apologize for his inability to help; it is as though the West did not exist. Visit a church and you will find it boarded up for “repair” of war damage. Some have been turned to other uses, like the thirteenth-century cathedral of Stralsund, which was reopened as an aquarium. Choose a vacant seat in a crowded restaurant and you will find your tablemates struck silent, discomforted by your presence; you will not, as you might in Hungary or Czechoslovakia, become part of their animated conversation.
After you have forgotten the names of avenues in Paris, when your mind no longer distinguishes one Italian hill town from another, you will remember the driftwood of history that is Baltic Germany; it is where you learn that Europe has come apart, the place where Europe is a stranger to itself.
Portuguese Men O’ War
From America’s side of the Atlantic, Lisbon and Belfast seem alike: two violent epicenters of political upheaval. In truth they are profoundly different. The surprising thing about the Portuguese capital is not its political or social disarray, but the fact that its mood has remained so peaceful for so long in the midst of such confusion.
In the early summer of 1975, the most controversial episode in Portugal’s crisis was the seizure of the Socialist party newspaper Republica by a communist faction of its own print shop workers. With the government’s tacit support, the printers locked out the Socialist editors and began writing the paper themselves, effectively depriving the country’s largest political party of its principal journalistic voice. They even used Republica’s traditional masthead. It was a catastrophic indignity to the Socialists, the sort of thing that invites retaliation to assuage wounded pride. Bloodshed would have been easy; a branch of the Socialist party headquarters stands directly across from Republica’s offices on the Rua de Misericordia. The balconies of the two buildings are a mere stone’s throw apart; yet no stones are thrown, nor shots fired. In Belfast such restraint would be inconceivable; the buildings would have been fortified like pillboxes and one faction or the other would have blown up its foes long ago. In Lisbon, life goes on: the communists can be seen inside, editing the day’s pro-Soviet edition, while outside the Socialists from time to time distribute copies of their own underground “Republica” to passing motorists.
As the country’s crisis deepened in July, the people of Lisbon preserved an astonishing capacity for relaxed coexistence. In the gloomy and precarious week after the Socialists had left the government in protest over its far leftward policies, they held a demonstration in a hillside park above Lisbon’s Palacio Foz. Although foreign newscasts portrayed the affair as teetering on the brink of violence, it was more a good-natured social event than an incipient insurrection. Except for a few dozen red-shirted young Socialists who punctuated the speeches with chants and whistles, the crowd of 5000 seemed to have attended more for the sake of solidarity than of militancy. Around the fringes, children laid down their red Socialist flags and put together an ad hoc game of soccer. Onlookers leafed through party literature and turned to gaze across the straw-colored city spread out below in the balmy twilight. Old couples wearing proper black gave their grandchildren a few escudos for a popsicle and applauded when a speaker declared himself contra o totalitarismo de minorias pseudo-revolucionarias! For the solitary shirtsleeved Marxist-Leninist who passed out communist pamphlets, the crowd showed an indulgent disregard; there was—and perhaps still is—an unwritten rule against disrupting another party’s rallies, and no one seemed worried in the least that the pamphleteer might be the vanguard for troublemakers just around the corner. You could not observe that rally without realizing that the people who attended it had only the slimmest chance of winning control of their country—and that they would be the most hapless of losers if the pro-communist regime ever managed to lock itself into place. Nothing better reveals the haunting political unreality of Lisbon this summer than the fact that the mood of such a crowd was neither belligerent nor submissive, neither optimistic nor afraid.
The nightly news brings stories of confrontation in the small towns of Northern Portugal, but Lisbon itself has been almost free of political violence in the sixteen months following the “Revolution of the Red Carnations.” The flowers in the rifles vanished long ago, and street debates occasionally turn strident, but the feeling of omnipresent malice so typical of Belfast is altogether missing there. (All of this may change—may already have changed to outright civil war by the time this magazine is printed; but if so, it will have come as a clean break with the extraordinary political behavior of the past year).
Lisbon looks like a college campus during student elections week, with classes dismissed for the duration. Posters and spray-paint graffiti are everywhere; socialists, communists, and assorted leftist splinter groups compete for advertising space along the buildings, in the subways, on the sidewalks, and in the streets. A 40-foot multicolored hammer and sickle has been painted on the pavement of Lisbon’s main square—a midnight gift of the Maoists. Hand-lettered manifestoes sprout on the plastic walls of bus stop shelters. “Anarchy or Death,” proclaims one. “Why ‘or Death?’ ” an argumentative citizen has scribbled at the bottom.
A man with a printing press and no scruples could make a fortune in Lisbon. By night, spirited teams of teenagers roam the avenues with posters, brushes, and buckets of glue; yesterday’s posters become as stale as yesterday’s news. In fact they constitute yesterday’s news. On the sidewalks around the Rossio, clumps of men argue and gesticulate. Someone holds a rally every evening: the international television cameras arrive, the banners are carefully displayed to best advantage, and Lisbon’s hills resound to the cry of “Hooray for our side.” For nearly 50 years, the Portuguese dozed through politics under the schoolmaster-ish tutelage of a conservative dictatorship, and the posters and debates are the long-repressed answer to the end of that frustration: wild, childish, rebellious, and enthralled.
They are also flamboyantly irrelevant. Portugal’s political future is wholly at the whim of the Armed Forces Movement. Parties of the Right were excluded from last spring’s elections, and the overwhelmingly victorious parties of the moderate Left (71 per cent of the vote) have no voice in shaping governmental policy. Portugal, says the London Economist, is “a country falling downstairs.” The principal reason is the inability of its armed forces to figure out what to do with the absolute power they possess. The posters still go up each night, and the sidewalk debates go on; but they have subtly changed from spontaneous expressions to empty ritual forms. By September, Portugal was being stolen from its own people.
History may well record that in the summer of 1975 it was Portugal that documented most eloquently the plight of Western Europe. In no other place were Europe’s weaknesses more ruthlessly exposed, nor the debts against it more remorselessly collected. In Lisbon, a government discarded democratic institutions like waste paper and drifted toward dictatorship or anarchy as the NATO countries looked on, appalled but impotent. To Lisbon came thousands of destitute Portuguese Angolans, refugees from the ignominious collapse of Western Europe’s last colonial empire. All of it was unthinkable five years ago. What happens in the next five years will say much about the ability of Western Europe to cope with its declining fortunes; no one believes that Portugal exists in isolation. What does exist there, clearly, is a rare patience in the face of apparent powerlessness: the ability to shake fists for a very long time without succumbing to the temptation to punch noses. Events will tell whether such tactics have any impact on political affairs. In the meantime, the animated political debates on Lisbon’s Rossio recall another recent European image: that of the Czech youths in 1968, arguing earnestly with the Russian soldiers who invaded Prague. That country’s fate, as history has already recorded, was not settled with words.