Setubal, Portugal…land of complexities. Old, modern, peace, war, simple, urban, wine and grapes and olives.
We spent two weeks in Setubal, a small industrial fishing city on the coast of Portugal. We were visiting our son who had just moved there a few weeks prior. We didn’t know what to expect because Portuguese travel photos show the beaches, the grape and olive lands, the people in scant bathing suits. But Setubal wasn’t that, any of that. It was rough around the edges, men standing around outside tables in front of tiny markets with coats on and hats tipped over their eyes, small glasses of vino tinto (red wine) in their hands. Women walking to and from daily market dressed in house dresses much like my grandmother wore. Young people dressed for work. Walking, always walking. And loud, laughing, and ever observant. We were observed. Fair skin, blue eyes, tall, new. We were observed. I’ll be honest, as beautiful as it all was it was at times a rather unsettling experience walking the narrow streets being stared at. No one was ever rude or mean to us. Grumpy at times, yes. But they always warmed up once we began to try to talk. I always had my little book of cheat comments that I referred to a lot. I had iTranslate on my phone that I’d use in a pinch but when I tried to communicate in Portugese and begin with, “Bom Dia” and end with “Obrigado” they always warmed up. Sometimes when they didn’t understand me I would show them the word or phrase using my phone. They would inevitable let out a hardy laugh because I butchered their language so badly. Then they would say it, the right way, and it was utter beauty. Their language would roll off their tongues with the same glorious sound of a well executed sonata. And I would smile a huge smile and that usually did it. Their gruff, hard working exterior would melt away and we would communicate. Two people from two different places and times, smiling and enjoying a moment. The walls were gone.
Walls. The notion of walls is never a good thing. Designed to keep out. Designed to not invite. I found myself thinking about walls a lot while I was there. So thankful Portugal isn’t a land of walls. While walls around a bathroom or bedroom can be a necessary thing to guarantee needed privacy, walls around property is another matter. Walls to keep pets in, understandable and practical. Walls to keep people out, cruel. Plain and simple, cruel.
We were asked over and over again about our current president. “How could you?” was the common initial question. Under that question was fear. Clear and visible, fear. We, from the United States, don’t quite understand the impacts of our decisions around the world. But travel abroad and you see it. It is clearly visible and generously shared once that guarded behavior is released. Trump, our wall, dying immigrant children in tents all graced the front pages of their newspapers while we were there. They hate him. They hate him because they fear him. His instability, his pure cruelty, his vocal and proud boasting of being a white nationalist. Europe has experienced him before. And they are petrified he’s back. And he is. But this time he’s from the United States, the country that is suppose to be a world leader. But under Trump we have lost that. In a very big way.
A gentle and caring man who helped us when we arrived to our hotel in Lisbon opened up when we were sitting in the front of the hotel before dawn on Christmas morning waiting for our scheduled Uber to show up and give us a lift the the airport. “Trump?” he asked. “Why?” Sigh. “We are so sorry,” we said. “We are embarrassed,” we said. “How could you elect such a man?” He proceeded to tell us what worries him most. Climate change, leaving the Paris Agreement, stealing public lands to release them to mining and oil companies, promoting coal, not believing the science of climate change, Koch Brothers, Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobil, lobbyists influence…. He knew and deeply understood more about our politics and state of affairs than most Americans do. And let’s talk about that term “Americans”. What an arrogant term. There are over 20 countries that make up the Americas yet we, the arrogant ones, use that term to mean us as if we are the only ones in the Americas who matter… As the Uber arrived and we thanked this kind and gentle man who shared his thoughts and fears so openly with us, these two foreign people he so clearly feared, we said, “Feliz Natal”, Merry Christmas. “Yes,” he said. “For Christmas please do me one favor. Vote. Please vote.” We promised him we would.
The ride to the plane was beautiful. A quiet, tattoo covered young man, our Uber driver, asked if we liked Jazz music and proceeded to play some of the most beautiful Jazz I’ve ever heard. As we drove, quite alone, through the well lit and festive city to our return flight I was reminded yet again that some things are not what they appear. As I watched the city go by, being lulled with the music and motion of the car, looking at the young man’s decorated arm, I was reminded. Some things are not how they appear.
The wall… Some things are not as they appear. The wall… Scared people, uprooting their entire lives to travel, on foot, through danger, heat, illness, for the hope of a safer life. Only to be greeted by a wall, tents, cages, emptied gallons of water, hate.
Traveling helps you see the evil in this. Because that is what it is. Pure and simple evil. And we are it. So as I sit here and reflect on the humbling experience of visiting a place where I didn’t know the language I think of the moms and dad and their kids arriving on our borders, hungry, scared, tired, thirsty, and unable to speak our language. I can only imagine their overwhelming fear. Who will greet them with a kind smile and a glass of water? Who will tell them they are now safe; that they will be ok?
May our thoughts and actions work to bring understanding, acceptance, and peace to those who struggle to have what we have.