The Francesinha of Porto

Sunshine in Portugal this week. The flight out packed; each human desperate to maximise their space in the overhead locker to avoid a 5 minute wait for luggage on arrival. Porto airport subdued and easy to navigate. As I watched the baggage carousel, the sunlight flooded across the runway and gold light poured through the glass brick walls of the arrival hall. Well worth the wait I thought.

The taxi took off at speed almost drifting around every curve. Portuguese drivers, like many Europeans, are maniacs. The lines in the middle of the road are not standards but guidelines. Bends are for swerving around; roundabouts for blocking other cars, other cars for cutting up and driving, in general, is for fun which is why the majority of the men and half the women in Porto are taxi drivers. Their cars are parked all over the downtown area often with two miles tailbacks behind them. If you ask them to take you anywhere, even if you give them a printed address and map, they wont take you because it’s not in their GPS.

After work one day, the Uber driver who returned me to my hotel explained that he works for a company. “We”, he explained, own a number of cars. “We” turned out to be what is usually referred to as “somebody else”. This somebody else signed up to Uber and then leant the cars out to this driver and his mates. They do the driving and “We” collects the dosh. The drivers are then paid a cut. To add insult to injury the drivers are responsible for any damage to the car. So, while the Uber model seems like a great way to enable the individual it seems that, as usual, it merely facilitates those with capital to exploit those without.

Dom Luís I Bridge

Dom Luís I Bridge

Porto is really two cities. To the north is Porto and to the south, Gaia. The river Douro divides the two and runs through a deep ravine crossed by several magnificent bridges. The Dom Luís I Bridge was designed by Théophile Seyrig, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, and should really be termed the snogging bridge since any young couple to stray within half a mile seem to settle into each other’s fond embrace. The British need half a bottle of vodka. The Portuguese need a bridge. Each to his own.

The town has a strangely English feel possibly due to defunct red telephone boxes and a beautiful Mini Cooper parked on the main drag. In the area down by the river little restaurants from previous decades, like English pubs baked and shrunken in the Iberian sun. Red leather stools and faded pictures of times gone by. Picture menus and foreign bank notes stuck to walls. One evening I felt like I’d time slipped back to the 1970s and sat waiting for my dad to come stumbling in, three sheets to the wind and stinking of Pall Malls and Long Life.

In the office I observed the excellent Business Analytics software named Power BI by Microsoft used for the visualisation of complex data sets and which will even work on raw CVS files. It seems to me that this type of software is delivering computing power directly into the hands of the business allowing the tech savvy user to interrogate data without having to jump through the bureaucratic hoops set by traditional IT departments. With this new power come the risk that the inexperienced user will use perfectly good data to generate absurd conclusions.

The Portuguese language was strange to my ears and had a certain Slavic sound to it. At lunch time we visited restaurants with set menus for the office trade where I was educated on how Portugal maintained independence from Spain through some very trying times. The Portuguese and the English, the oldest alliance in history and still intact.

The food is generally excellent. Delicious steaks. Good wine. For 10 Euros you can get soup, a delicious chicken and potatoes, a glass or two of chilled white wine, an almond tart and an expresso. But there’s a but. The Portuguese are idiosyncratic. Many of my evening meals came with giant potato crisps rather than chips and the famous traditional dish of Porto is something to behold! The traditional dish is the sort of meal a Scouser might rustle up after arriving home from the pub and finding the fridge full of leftovers. Presented with all the enthusiasm and pride of Le Cordon Bleu, it remains a sausage sandwich smothered with melted cheese, topped with a fried egg, covered with gravy then sprinkled with chips. Delicious if you’ve just drunk 7 pints of lager but otherwise rather filling.

The name of this oddity is Francesinha which, according to my new Portuguese friends, means little French girl. A name that requires the suspension of disbelief since the name has so little similarities with the thing itself. In fact, if one were build an entity-relationship data set of the entire cosmos positioning each “thing” or concept or idea near or far from its neighbour dependent on similarity. If one were to then visualise this model using tools such as Power BI then the overall shape of the model would be entirely dictated by the necessity to place the word Francesinha and the culinary abomination of Porto at extreme polar opposites. The entire cosmos would be bent out of whack by this one necessity. Since this is, indeed, the universe in which we live, this may explain a lot.

Discard your bucket list and rely on serendipity

Rainbow Mountains in Peru

Rainbow Mountains in Peru

When I first went “travelling” I remember planning it and thinking: I’ll see the Taj Mahal, Ayers Rock (Uluru), Carnival in Rio, etc etc etc. A bucket list. It seemed a good idea at the time. Since then legions of cheap air fares and general affluence have opened up every corner of the world to Johnny Tourist and even Barak O’bloody’bama has a bucket list. In the media a bucket list is a standard piece of filler for the travel section of newspapers and today a friend re-posted pictures of the amazing rainbow mountains in Peru originally posted by “Bucket List Travels”. They look fantastic.

But really? REALLY!? Are we really all supposed to visit these bloody place before we die? There are 7 billion of us for God’s sake! OK, not all of us are affluent enough to take these holidays but The World Bank reports that the total number of tourism arrivals for 2016 was 1.2 billion!

International tourism, number of arrivals

International tourism, number of arrivals

The number of tourist attractions is minuscule by comparison. On a recent Sunday in Sussex, in preparation for a Sunday walk with The Ramblers, I boarded a bus and found it stuffed full of Germans! But of course. Think about it: Tourists visit the places sold to them by the tourist industry and in England this means Stonehenge, Buckingham Palace and The Seven Sisters in Sussex.

There are far too many tourists clogging up every beautiful place on Earth. The New Zealanders are cottoning on to this as are Berliners. Tourism is wrecking every unique and beautiful place on earth. From the beaches of Thailand to the streets of London.

The counter argument is to present mass tourism as a reaction against elitism and to question why the masses should be prevented from experiencing the wonders of the Earth. The answer is not that they should be “prevented” but that the tourist industry is not some altruistic charity bringing culture to the masses. It is, like all unregulated capitalist enterprise, a voracious profit seeking machine with little interest in culture or sustainability. It is driving ambivalent couch potatoes to destinations they only want to see to say they have.

Why should we allow corporations to commandeer public space for profit? Why should we stay silent while communities are eroded by legions of disinterested “consumers”? It’s not just me that’s irritated by tourism. An excellent video posted recently shows a Nepalese woman chasing a tourist down a mountain path and throwing rocks at her for whining about the price of a cup of tea. Good for her. Perhaps we should all throw rocks at tourists.

When so many people visit Thai beaches or Borough market the experience changes. It’s the tourist equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. You can’t be alone and serene on a gorgeous Thai beach if surrounded by five thousand beefy faced, pot bellied, jug eared Europeans like yourself. You can’t experience the authentic ambiance and irreverent banter of a working fish market when most of the wholesale vendors have been driven out by the tourist trade.

I visited Rome with a friend and she told me “I only want to see the Sistine Chapel, I’m not interested in anything else”. Then why come? On arrival at said Chapel, after being told numerous times that all photography was banned, a surly American stood videoing, his face pressed to the viewfinder while he growled “Don’t touch me, don’t you touch me” at the attendance asking him to stop. The rest of the Italian holiday we meandered from one objective to another with no real enthusiasm other than getting these things out of the way. Ticking them off the bucket list.

Part of the problem is over population. Scientists refer to the current ecological era as the Anthropocene because mankind is the dominant factor affecting the planet. They also believe that human activity is causing the sixth great extinction event in the Earth’s history.

But the scourge of tourism is also a lack of imagination. It’s reliance on someone else to sell you an experience. Let me make a suggestion: If you you’re visiting Italy and you’re not interested in history or religion then don’t visit the Sistine Chapel. It’s not obligatory. There’s no shame in it. And there’s no shame in having interests outside of the agenda sold you by the travel agent. Consider what you’re interested in and research that. Italy has plenty to offer the keen horticulturalist (Cervara garde) and the car fanatic (The Alfa Romeo Museum ) as it does the religious nut.

During my original around the world trip I stopped in Hong Kong. When grilled about this by a friend he asked: did you see this and did you see that? And I answered no and he said, it doesn’t sound like you saw much at all.

But I did. On my first night I headed straight for Ned Kelly’s Last Stand and ate my first western food in three months (gammon and mash). I then got drunk as a skunk. I woke in in a tiny hotel room in Chungking Mansions where the occupant of the top bunk got frozen feet while the occupant of the bottom bunk sweltered in the heat. I weaved my way through the crowded streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, I argued with theatrically rude camera salesmen. I saw taxi doors that closed themselves and I visited a former colleague in hospital. I drank in absurd English pubs from the 50s and watched equally absurd British ex-pats talking of slacks and Bass (pronounced Baaaaasss) beer and I crossed from Kowloon to Victoria on the Star Ferry. I can still feel the tropical air and the salt spray now. It was wonderful and I planned none of it.

Do yourself and everyone else a favor. Discard your bucket list and let serendipity be your guide.

Population Matters

Population Matters

Friends, Romans, Countrymen – don’t consume stories, listen to them

Religious Consumption

Religious Consumption

Sunday morning I listened to Broadcasting House on BBC Radio 4 and heard how technology is affecting radio and TV. The presenter referred to how we “consume” radio.

I am not about to give a lecture on lexicography but the adoption of the word “consume” for every social interaction is part of a commercialisation of society which we are only now beginning to understand. Starting under Thatcher and continuing under Blair a political vocabulary was deliberately adopted to encourage us to view society as nothing more than a system of commercial transactions. It is responsible for a change in mind set, a coarsening of discourse and an emphasis on materialism.

Building societies morphed into banks, the borrowers changed from members to customers and the building market was opened to dubious practices including a flood of foreign money which helped drive property prices to obscene levels.

Football clubs became Plcs, the supporters became customers and were milked for money for branded shirts. The new PLCs then abandoned their traditional supporters for the much larger TV market.

Railways were privatised and passengers became customers. The emphasis moved from transportation to sales. The trains are newer, the stations packed full of shops but the seating is worse.

Even airports morphed into enormous shopping malls. As a frequent flyer I am continually irritated as I clear security and am deposited in the middle of a perfume section of some department store.

Humans are amazing animals. We live in complex social groups and each person plays many roles. We’re friends, brothers, mothers, lovers, teachers, neighbors, locals and strangers… least we were at the time of writing. We are also passengers, football supporters and club members.

So, friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. The essence of radio is storytelling which existed millennia before double entry book keeping and we do not consume stories. We listen to them.