Covid has not been something I wish to celebrate or remember. But here we are. And as I look back at the enormous shift in our lives, I am drawn to Metaphysics - the real and not real, side by side. And to do that, and better understand how something so seemingly unreal can impact the real lives of so many, I find myself drawn to the world poet Fernando Pessoa, and his Tabacaria. Perhaps the perfect poet to make any sense of the pandemic.
My father’s family came from Portugal, which today is not the place my father left in 1966. Born into a fascist state - he was shipped off at the age of 22 to a colonial war he had no understanding of. And as soon as he got to Africa, he saw that everything he had been told about the war was a lie. After three horrific years, he was ready for new horizons.
It was a crisis that brought me and Portugal together. As a young kid in 1980s Chicago, I had my share of challenges. I had lost my mother at an early age, and when she passed away, I lost a lot of my father too. I was so lucky to have the love of my grandparents — but they too struggled with our loss. My dad had the idea to ship me off to Portugal one summer in the early 80s.
Today, everyone wants to go to Portugal it seems — but the Portugal of the early 1980s was a very different place. It was bigger — the roads were awful, and it took forever to get anywhere. It was poorer — no malls, big super markets, vacation homes or shiny Airbnbs. It was isolated — just 1.5 television stations, and the outside world seemed so far away. They ate things I had no idea that people ate: octopus, cow brains, eels and pig’s ears. The hamburgers were inedible. Hardly anyone spoke English, no one played baseball — and sticking darts in bulls is what passed for a summer sport.
I could not have been sent to a place more distant from Chicago - and somehow, I loved it. You could say Portugal and I grew up together. When I went to high school, Portugal joined the EU. I went on to college, Portugal built high speed rail. The old Portugal that so captivated me slowly slipped away — and my life was centered in the land I was born into. I met a wonderful woman, got wed, founded a career, had kids… and life was great — then along came Covid.
Maybe it was before Covid, as Pandora's little box of horrors was opened, bringing out hatred, injustice, division, and inequity. The common enemy should have been Covid, but as we turned on each other instead of making Covid the enemy we made masks and science the bad guy. And a lot of people died. So, I looked across the sea, to that ancient sliver of land that was once so backwards, so isolated, so often sad and steeped in nostalgia. And I saw something new.
Then, each summer we would spend a couple of weeks on the Algarve Coast. To get there one had to cross the Alentejo, 30% of Portugal is a vast, unique region. So, I took full advantage and planned the trip to explore new and far-flung corners of the province — and I soon fell in love.
Today, so much has changed - More than 90% of Portugal is vaccinated, and the country is emerging from Covid with signs of life returning to normal. So, if I had to come up with one main take away, Covid has taught me that Portugal is a very special place, with an amazing capacity to grow and evolve. Not bad for a country pushing 900 years.
Windows of my room,
The room of one of the world's millions nobody knows about
(And if they knew about me, what would they know?)
You open onto the mystery of a street continually crossed by people,
A Street inaccessible to any thought,
Real, impossibly real, certain, unknowingly certain,
With the mystery of things beneath the stones and beings,
With death making the walls damp and the hair of men white,
With Destiny driving the wagon of everything down the road of nothing.