To the Land of the Laziest Pigeons in the World

Most of my readers are already in the know. We told them that we intend to migrate one more time. We are planning to move to Portugal late June, 2016, depending on the sale of our house in Matfield Green, Kansas. Are you by chance looking for solitude on the tallgrass prairie? Lonesome but not alone? The nearest supermarket may be 50 kilometers away, but there is a small community of artists, designers and journalists who never say never to a glass of good wine and a hilarious conversation. We will miss those guys sitting on our porch from 5 p.m. until … By the way, our home has already sold, but a few other interesting properties are still available in Matfield Green.

Ton Haak

To the Land of the Laziest Pigeons in the World

Back to Europe. Not to the Netherlands—been there, done that. Lots of good memories and we will cherish them forever, just as we’ll hold dear so much of what we enjoyed in the United States. Now, a new adventure. Portugal calls. Like the Netherlands a piece of the old world but still unknown to us, and much older to boot. Rock inscriptions that are 30,000 years old can be found. The Portuguese were the first to sail the world seas; they discovered India, China, Japan, parts of Africa and Indonesia, as well as Brazil, years before the Dutch, in the 17th century, became the reigning maritime power. In the early 16th century, Portuguese merchant captains already carried growing cargoes of opium from India to China. The Dutch less than 60 years later increased the scale of these shipments to over 50 tons, later 147 tons annually. Of no less importance, my Dutch forefathers introduced the practice of smoking opium in a tobacco pipe, thus popularizing the drug. Indeed, it’s not just the Anglo-Saxons who built their empire’s wealth on opium, the drug laid the foundations for the Dutch welfare state as well and, more recently, profited the US economy and its global power schemes no less. The American CIA’s role in the opium and heroin trade involved (and involves) not just indirect complicity but also direct culpability, while the nation with its moral fervor hides hypocritically behind the, forever failing, “war on drugs.” All of us white guys really know how to mess up the earth and anything on it. The Portuguese, though, are not all very white—Moorish and other African genes through hundreds of years helped to create a new and quite splendid race—but alas, they didn’t turn away from genocide and exploitation either.

The only parts of the world the Portuguese explorers didn’t discover were what are now called North-America and Central-America. They could have been the first Europeans to set foot on land there as well, but when Columbus knocked on their king’s door for financial support of his expedition to discover a short sea route to India, the Portuguese crown refused to underwrite him—didn’t have much confidence in his navigational expertise, I guess. History proved the Portuguese right. Columbus, then financed by the Spanish crown, didn’t make it to India, but stumbled onto the Americas and wrongly named their population, Indians. He didn’t even make it to what is the North-American continent; he got stuck in the Caribbean, not knowing he had hit on mere islands. Imagine, had Columbus found the short route to India and left America alone, what the world would be like today with a Spanish heritage all over the Asian subcontinent. Tamales in Hong Kong. Mariachis in Delhi. Tapas everywhere in Manilla. No Pizarro to be the first man to decimate the ancient tribes of the Americas. No Mexicans as we know them today, this mixed race of Spaniards, Indians, and African blacks with a sprinkle of French and Irish blood, ready to climb over or dig under Donald Trump’s border wall. No Spanish names in the US, no Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Los Ojos—no burritos, no Dos Equis, no Pancho Villa, no tequila… Imagine…

No, we’re not going back to the Netherlands. We would no doubt find a different country compared to the one we left in 1994 and that has solidified fondly in our memories. It can’t be the same. In our Dutch days… well, let me recount one story, of one occurrence that was possible, even normal, then, and (as I understand) no longer is, alas. Just one example of the Dutch culture I so much enjoyed then. I was still there when it happened.

Our work space occupied two large rooms in the 18th century building that one day had housed the Russian czarist ambassador to the Netherlands. The Voorhout in The Hague–by many called the most beautiful lane in Europe, and it really scores high—was and is the location of many embassies and diplomats’ townhouses, and of two royal palaces. The Voorhout is only steps away from the Dutch parliament buildings, and one of its corners is, but only to 2017, the site of the US embassy. Their growing exorbitant security demands created a fortress so intrusive to the area (where also many restaurants and cafés, as well as theaters can be found), that the US was politely asked to get the hell out of Dodge and build a new embassy someplace in a grassy polder far from the rest of the international community and The Hague’s party crowd. The embassies of countries less under stress such as the UK, Sweden, Poland, Indonesia, and more, remain peacefully in the cozy center of The Hague.

The former Russian embassy was bought by a well-to-do Dutch artist, Hendrik Willem Mesdag, in the late 19th century. The son of a banker, he donated the grand building to the local art society called Pulchri, which is Latin for something like, “For the love of beauty.” It is still the domain of The Hague’s artists today. There is an important art gallery; there are large and high, museum-style exhibition spaces; two restaurants with a courtyard café-terrace; beautiful antique party and reception rooms; and a lively bar, where six evenings a week until the early morning hours a loud crowd of painters, authors, performers, journalists and politicians assemble to discuss art, politics, and the world in general. Our work space was next to the front door, so we were observant of scores of developing parties, a surprising number of escaping duos that weren’t married (not to each other), and many a budding, intriguing local or even national scandal. We ourselves, I have to admit, not always made it home from our workplace at a decent time. There was always something going on that would keep us there into the late hours.

Pulchri Studio, so close to the parliament buildings, for many years was also the home of several weekly TV shows focusing on politics and politicians. In one of the elegant rooms cameras and lighting would be installed; one podium was added where the discussion would take place between members of parliament and government officials, and a second podium for the live (classical) orchestra. The then Dutch prime minister would show up, always belated, for he never hurried with finishing his copious dinner in a nearby Michelin ** restaurant, Le Bistroquet. Other government ministers would participate; and representatives of political parties or trade unions; as well as now and then foreign correspondents, foreign ambassadors, EU dignitaries, and the like. The discussion could be … rather surprising and often even shocking—incomparable with what we experience during political so-called “debates” here in America—with lots of laid-back humor, hardly any political correctness, and if the moderator thought the interchange became boring, he signaled the orchestra to loudly blow the dignitaries off the stage. This happened to whoever was speaking, prime minister, political commentator, or ambassador. I remember a US envoy who tried to not act hurt, Paul Bremer, the one who more recently was sent to Iraq to introduce “real democracy” to the country and failed so miserably; he is The Third with the same first name in a wealthy family of Republican WASPs, and one may hope he is the last one.

After the end of the program, or as Americans say, the show, at 11 p.m., most often its participants would assemble in the bar, but the then prime minister and a few others preferred to have a couple of relaxing drinks with a smaller crowd in Pulchri Studio’s board room, where the artist society’s board president, treasurer and secretary would already have opened a fresh bottle of genever, the Dutch equivalent of vodka. Their after-party often went on into the wee hours. I can give testimony of this, I can provide proof by telling a story no one could invent. One evening, or rather one night, because it was close to 2 a.m., the then prime minister, a Christian-Democrat who was an avid bicyclist (he rode his bike often to his office), was pushed by the opposition leader, a Liberal (which in the Netherlands means: someone from the center right) to compete in a bike race, the outcome of which would define the future of the government. A few bicycles were allocated easily, the whole bunch went outside to the Voorhout, glasses and bottles in hand, the prime minister and his adversary mounted their bicycles at the starting line and, upon a hand signal (no one risked shooting something, afraid to wake up the local police force; but surely no one was carrying a piece anyway) rode off in the saddle. The small crowd in the otherwise deserted city center cheered them on. The opposition leader, amazingly, because he was rather heavy-set and not an avid bicyclist, won the race. Everyone suspected that the well-trained, very competitive prime minister had allowed him to win, which raised the question, why? He told the opposition leader: “This time, generous me let you win,” he said, “I wanted to give you the pleasure of one last victory.” Anyway, they proved they deserved their high stance in politics by not falling off their bikes even after sharing at least a one-liter bottle of genever.

We selected Portugal for our European resettlement. Because it is a small country with an ancient history and a slow-moving society totally different from the cash-and-trash culture that we’d grown accustomed to in America. Portugal is beautiful, has a climate not unlike California, lots of ancient architecture and unspoiled landscapes, a socialized health care system, great wines, and many expats from the United Kingdom. I don’t know yet if the last is a recommendation or a disadvantage—at least it makes use of the English language fairly common, so newcomers such as we won’t have to learn too much of the beautiful yet difficult Portuguese language to be able to move around happily.

The average Portuguese person speaks far better English than they will let on. “Don’t be surprised if, after weeks of struggles to order your coffee, the barista surprisingly breaks into perfect English, yet all the while apologising for not speaking your language. It appears that, far from trying to be difficult, they are actually very modest and shy. They are most polite and helpful.” That is one of the reasons that so many foreigners want to be in this country.

Portugal, a country different. Where, after a meal, you appear to have become invisible to the wait staff as soon as you have been served your coffees. It doesn’t mean the standards of service have suddenly dropped; in Portugal, people like to sit for quite some time after finishing a meal. “On one occasion, a visitor to the country noticed someone place his head on the table and have a short nap before leaving.” Unlike in America, there is no table-turning culture in Portugal. Just ask for the bill when you are ready to leave. No hurry, no pressure. How wonderful.

Portuguese people typically revere literary figures at least as highly as famous musicians and sports stars. In an increasingly dumbed-down, X-Factor loving world, this will be a great experience.

This top wine-drinking country in the world (and with only 10 million people its 7th wine producer) boasts some fabulous rosé wines; as soon as the sun comes out they drink it like water. Mosaraz Rosé is a favorite, so is Porta da Ravessa Rosé–a pink variant of workday Portuguese red and white wines that is reliably tasty and costs less than $3.00 a bottle, and is said to be the perfect companion to those spontaneous barbecues that pop up on warm summer evenings or mild winter days.

Of the Portuguese red wines, Porta da Ravessa Reserva at just $3.99 is a bargain. A rich, deep and intensely fruity wine, it stands up well to a spiced roast-chicken dinner. For a special occasion, I might be tempted to splash out the extra $2.00 or so for a bottle of Quinta da Alorna Reserva 2009 instead. On other days, it will be time to pop open a bottle of Vinho Verde from Vilacetinho, a delightful wine and with every sip it is said to grow on you. “Fresh, light, smooth on your palette, with a wonderful citrus zing, and not too sophisticated either, best to be drunk when chilled to perfection.” And then there are the ports… the great port wines. Especially a 20-year-old tawny port is sweet and bold, complex and delicious. A sensational after-dinner beverage to pair off with old, old cheeses.

Leaving Kansas, one may think, means saying farewell to “big steak” country and its grass-fed “beef on the hoof.” Nothing is less true. Even with freshwater and sea fish prominent in the diet, and borrego (lamb) and cabrito (kid) scoring high, the Portuguese –as I am happy to assure my cattle-ranching and beef-loving Kansas friends– have a special attitude towards stockbreeding and the production of meat. The quality of their to inhos (cattle) grazing on mountain pastures and in certain grassy valleys is described as solar, which encompasses all the natural factors that combine in the proper raising of an animal: not just the breed but also biosphere, climate, vegetation and feed. The special quality of Portuguese beef was already recognized in the early 19th century. Barrosão is since long the ultimate in beef; like Alentejana, Arouquesa, Cachena, Marinhoa and Mertolenga, this exquisite brand of old breed deserves the highest DO quality mark. I never understood why the cattle ranchers of the tallgrass prairie in Kansas did not introduce their own quality brand; their grass-fed beef could have gained a fame similar to Kobe’s–and FH, “Flint Hills,” would have become a well-recognized and probably nicely high-priced world brand.

By the way, eating or drinking while walking is considered uncivilized in Portugal. You can buy a Coke from a vending machine and drink it standing on site; but make sure you finish drinking before you get mobile. Luckily, cafés have adapted their service to suit this culture. When in a hurry, let the barista know that you would like to stand at the bar. They will understand that you don’t have much time and serve you your coffee and pastel de nata (Portuguese tart) extra quickly.”

How you dress matters in Portugal, and dressing correctly doesn’t always mean dressing better. Displaying ostentation tends not to be appreciated. Immigrants living in inner-city Lisbon find that strangers are generally friendly welcomed, except on the odd occasion that one wears a business suit or in a different way overdresses. But dressing down is also a bad idea; it displays a lack of respect for social rules. As a result, there is a very specific wardrobe among the Portuguese, with the men mostly wearing trousers and collared shirts, while the women wear wedge heels, skirts and casual-but-fashionable tops.

And the last fact my readers really must know is: Portugal has the laziest pigeons of the world—they call them “rats of the ground”–they cannot be rats of the sky, because they fly never up. The Portuguese pigeons must have their own ornithological culture. Something to look forward to. At least they won’t shit on our heads like the Italian pigeons in Venice did.

Literature:  Joop Looijestijn, ‘Huismeester in Haagse Kringen’; Alfred W. McCoy, ‘The Politics of Heroin’; André Dominé, Michael Ritter, ‘Culinaria’ (Volume 2)

Ton Haak, February 2016