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.

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