Will Peischel is a journalism junior and Mustang News study
abroad columnist. This is satire.
The train across the Portuguese countryside evokes nostalgia; the landscape resembles the hills that surround San Luis Obispo. The crisp yellow is exactly the same, stunning and familiar. I feel like I’m returning to Cal Poly on the Pacific Surfliner after a weekend trip to Los Angeles.
That’s why I was so devastated to find Portugal to be such a disappointing travel experience. My compatriot, University of Nevada, Reno student Austin Slaughter, and I expected a smooth experience based on the fact that the nation is geographically very Western European. We expected to arrive to agreeable weather and plenty of good backdrops for social media posts.
I came to Europe as an upper-middle-class cisgender white male for two reasons: adding travel experience to my deck of conversation topics without challenging any predispositions, and Tinder swipes. I like my worldview and understanding, so I wouldn’t want to challenge them and let them change. If you, reader, are looking for a similar experience, delete any Google Chrome bookmarks that involve the Iberian Peninsula. Here is my scathing review.
I arrived by airplane in Lisbon. The airport seemed normal. It had places and bathrooms and monitors. Little did I know, it was a shelter, albeit a momentary one, protecting me from the harsh winds of cultural exposure and different ideas outside. I exited the airport to find the actual wind very agreeable to my preferences.
At least they got one thing right.
A taxi driver offered to drive me to the hostel, but he didn’t take my backpack off of me or open my door.
Strike one and strike two, good sir.
The taxi driver tried to make conversation, but we quickly ran into a dilemma. I asked him how he felt about the gentrification of Brooklyn-Stuyvesant in New York City. He had very little to contribute, despite the topic being a hotspot of controversy and dialogue with many potential tangents. Suddenly, I was the one accommodating him, in his own country.
I changed the subject to something a little more accessible: the debate over the pronunciation of the acronym GIF. Again, he had nothing to say. Clearly, I wasn’t speaking to a fellow Redditor.
The next several minutes of the conversation fell silent, as I cooked up the negative Yelp review this man would receive.
The next morning, I set out to meet my friend Austin in a café, where we would plan our day of looking through camera lenses and not reading plaques. After reassuring the woman behind the counter that we were both heterosexuals (two men at one table leaves all sorts of ambiguities) I had to settle for a plain coffee and non-descript pastry. The concept of a “red eye” was far too complex for her and they served no bear claws. No formal job training there, I suppose. If someone had just colonized Portugal when they had the chance, I’m sure Lisbon would carry far more provisions from the developed world. Alas, one unsatisfying meal later, we were off, down the cobblestone.
We marched up and down little side streets, past sun-bleached brick and stray cats. Men collected outside little bodegas and smoked cigarettes. Women hung up linens, which contrasted against the backdrop of tiled walls. Old couples sat outside doors on plastic chairs and watched the street. The uneven streets and perfect messiness of everything in their asymmetrical places perfectly paralleled the tight, albeit unique community bond.
I was completely threatened by it. Austin, however, faced the greatest adversity. I may have lacked the certain swarthiness of the Portuguese, but my one-size-fits-all hair color and facial structure afforded me some level of mutual identification with the people here. I could blend and keep cool. Austin stands six-foot-four with blond hair — a regular sheep in a field of Mediterranean black sheep. Poor man. How could he identify with people who weren’t even considerate enough to look like him?
Austin’s height was just one of the exploitative moments of the Lisbon experience. The major inhibitor was the language barrier. It seemed to me that city residents preferred to speak their mother tongue, effectively excluding us visitors. Even further, street signs, while admittedly written in both Portuguese and English, featured the English text in a different font, backseat to the defiant Portuguese text. I felt like a second-class citizen in a country I was contributing to the tourism economy of. Most young citizens spoke English, but never with expertise to speak about the finer things, like obscure literature or other unique interests of mine.
Thanks to the western-style navigation applications I previously downloaded on my phone, we were able to catch the main sites without any help. They were stunning. Massive, old institutional buildings, lush with curves and intricacies in faded white outlined the city’s squares. However, the impressive legacy of proud generations of Portuguese men from ages past was tainted by my experience with the current inhabitants. I stood before the statue of an old explorer with an important sounding name and matching posture.
Camera flipped to selfie mode, I flashed my Greek letters and represented my brothers with pride — the townies seized the opportunity to shoot me with their dirtiest looks. Their collective intention to infringe on my sacred personal right to identify with myself nearly killed my vibe, so I held my hands even higher. Greek Life is a proud, American tradition with deep roots. Maybe they didn’t understand. The statue of the explorer, Whats-his-face, stood proudly behind my unapologetic stance.
The weekend was long, but fortunately iMessages and web browsing prevented me from being oppressed by Portugal much more than that. Soon enough the airport, an enclave from the burn of too much exposure to something foreign, delivered me out of that place.
As an upper-middle-class male, I expect to be accommodated, especially when I find myself in vulnerable rare form: a minority role. Portugal completely failed to deliver that, and instead presented me with the insecurity of confronting my own rooted understanding of the world. Apparently, everything on earth isn’t like San Luis Obispo, and the hegemonic role my race and gender established doesn’t carry me as far as I’ve been raised to believe it should.
Color me disappointed. I award the country a downvote.