Brexcetera, March 29th
This month, the Brexit Desk team have all hanged themselves or run away. This has left me short-staffed, but I feel something needs to be said, on this day of all days, when the thing has finally gone officially tits-up. It reminds me of the old Country Joe song about the Vietnam draft, ‘Feel like I’m fixin’ to die’, but Brexiteers will go on petulantly insisting that Britain is not crashing out of Europe, nor even tumbling out, and can we please avoid such sensationalist language. OK, are we storming out, perhaps, or striding out, or swanning out, leaving Europe feeling foolish in our wake ? A lot of people are certainly Freaking Out.
The piece below refers back to a happier time, a few weeks ago.
Saturday, February 23rd, 8.15am
Today I am in Lisbon for my Portuguese language test. This is going to happen in the Universidade de Lisboa, pleasantly located just off Campo Grande, down which my Uber is now taking me. I have allowed myself this piece of self-indulgence (what’s one more, after all?) rather than have to drive into Lisbon and park, or get up at 6.30 and do the trip in by train and tube. I am perfectly sure I am going to pass this test, but I have been feeling oddly nervous yesterday and today.
For a major urban thoroughfare, Campo Grande is very easy on the eye. You don’t notice that there are three lanes going south and three going north, because in between them is a large park, running the best part of a kilometre north-south, and two hundred yards wide at its broadest, with plenty of well-grown trees, lawns, a large tree-fringed boating lake, cafés, tennis courts and so on. It is all very attractive in the early-morning sunshine, with more lawns and trees separating the main avenue from the parallel exit road, down which we are now rolling comfortably, preparing to turn right. By now large blocky buildings of different shapes have started to appear on that side, beyond lawns, spindly trees and carparks. I am a fan of Cement Institutional, and there are one or two fine examples here as we turn right, especially the stunning Torre do Tombo. I get a good view of this as we drive past before stopping at the Faculdade de Letras, which overlooks a big grassed area, featureless as an Indian maidan.
I hop out and scurry up broad steps to the entrance, passing between tall rectangular columns supporting a deep, forty-foot-high porch. The front edge of this porch is an exact white square, as if a tall box has been laid on its longer side. You can see what the architect is getting at with the geometric simplicity of this, and the four brownish-pink columns running along the front. Even so, it’s a bit like an improvised cage for a giant guinea-pig.
Beyond the doors is a long high entrance hall, lined with more square pillars. Something about it makes me think of 1984, or perhaps Russia, or perhaps just the nineteen-forties. There is a knot of people gathered about one of the pillars, which has a list of candidates and exam rooms to go to. I find my name, and after a bit of wandering about corridors I find the room as well. There are about twenty other people already there, sitting at desks arranged in rows. They are mostly Middle-Eastern or Slavic in appearance. A limp, mildly attractive middle-aged woman with hair rather too long for her age is standing by the desk at the front of the room. She takes my name and I find my table.
I park my bag, get out my stuff and look round the room, which like the rest of the building needs a coat of paint. I notice there is no clock. I have never seen an exam room without one, so I put up my hand and ask about this. We will be given a fifteen-minute warning before the end of the exam, I am told, as if that solves the problem. OK, I say, smiling sunnily.
The first exam will be of an hour and a quarter, and will test reading comprehension and written expression. Unfortunately it cannot be started because a few candidates are not here yet. In less sympathetic contexts, the exam would start on time and late arrivers would simply have less time to do it, or would be disqualified. However this is Portugal, so we wait until every last person is in and sitting comfortably, whereupon the lone invigilator asks if everyone has all they need for the exam (we have all been told by email to bring a pen, a pencil and so on) and five or six candidates put up their hands to confess they have brought nothing to write with. As I shake my head to myself in righteous incredulity, the invigilator nods understandingly and asks if other candidates could oblige by lending what is necessary. In the end the exam starts thirteen minutes late. I know this because we are not asked to switch off our mobile phones, another generous concession I haven’t come across before.
For the reading comprehension test we have to read fifteen short texts supposed to be text-messages, each followed by multiple-choice questions. Following this we have to hand-write our own text-messages, based on simple imaginary situations. This is harder than you might think when you don’t want to make mistakes, and overall there is quite a lot to do in the time. However, candidates around me rise to the challenge with a heart-warming display of autonomy, two behind me colluding throughout in loud whispers, and the young man to my left showing well-developed research skills by continually consulting his mobile phone. The invigilator notices none of this, having some marking to catch up with. After a break, the short listening test is much the same, except that the texts are short scripted conversations recorded by not-very-good actors. The pace and carefully controlled language of these little dialogues makes them much easier to understand than the improvised, disorganised instructions delivered by the invigilator beforehand. Anybody who could follow these, it seems to me, has no further need of a listening test, but what do I know.
In the afternoon there will be interactive oral tests in the form of paired interviews, but in the meantime I have two or three hours to kill. I decide to walk back down towards Campo Grande. I have brought a bottle of water, a sandwich and a bit of fruit, but that now seems an even less appetising lunch than it did this morning when I threw it together. However I noticed a little on-campus café called ‘ 100 Montaditos’ when I arrived this morning, and I am keen to try this; I am a big fan of montaditos, which I have eaten in the north of Spain. If you don’t know what they are, they are sort of tapas but better, comprising little sections of white baguette-style bread mounted with exotic combinations of delicious ingredients, pinned down by toothpicks.
With hopes high, I step into the trendily fitted-up café, to find it smelly and full of chattering young people queuing for or consuming catering-quality mini-pizzas, nachos with little plastic pots of sauce, and cartons of those skinny cardboardy chips you get in shopping centres. So much for montaditos. I cross the footbridge to the park and, needing a pee, stop into a surprisingly-located McDonald’s, where the truly terrible stink and hubbub make the café seem refined by comparison. It occupies the entire ground floor of a large two-storey building, which judging by its concrete and glass construction is owned by the University. Perhaps the administration has concluded that anybody who doesn’t know about healthy eating by the time they go to college is beyond re-education, but even so it is slightly shocking to see so many educated young people tucking into such awful food, especially in Portugal, where the food generally isn’t bad.
Outside, the sun is warm. I find a bench, take off my jacket and consume my packed lunch, then walk to a big tree I’ve had my eye on. I lay my jacket on the grass beneath it and lie down with my hat covering my face. It is pleasant and relaxing to hear the pock-pock of tennis rackets, the distant squawking of indignant ducks on the boating-lake, snatches of conversation approaching and fading as people walk past.
Without realising I have dropped off, I am abruptly woken by the stout bellowing of a female child. She is leaning against the tree-trunk with her eyes covered by her hands, counting slowly and very loudly down from twenty while her friends find somewhere to hide, apparently two or three miles away. When she has finished counting I wait for her to go away and look for them, but she stays, and I realise it is that game where they have to sneak up and touch the tree without being tagged. This leads to a lot of panting, squealing, argumentative fun, which I have soon had enough of being this close to. I get to my feet, gather my stuff and move away, grumbling mutinously.
There is still time to kill, which in preparation for my oral test I fill with sitting on a bench watching what the Portuguese nation get up to on a Saturday afternoon. Or rather, since we are in central Lisbon and it is the weekend, watching the activities of those lisboetas who can afford to live nearby. It reminds me of Regent’s Park in London when I went a couple of years ago, except that here there are residents and no obvious foreigners (any tourists will be a good way off, in the older part of the city) while in Regent’s Park there seemed to be residents and no English.
Post-lunch, it is a busy scene. Strolling families share the wide tarmac paths safely with joggers and the odd cyclist, who display none of the bad manners and sense of entitlement for which their London counterparts are increasingly resented. Nobody is pushed under a bus, at least.[i] Children scamper, grandparents beam indulgently, young couples saunter by hand-in-hand.[ii] It is very pleasant and civilised, as Portugal mostly is.
My oral test is in the form of a conversation with another candidate, loosely prompted and structured by an interlocutor. it is recorded for later assessment. My partner in this is a Cuban woman in early middle-age who is living in the Algarve. We have a nice chat, in which the interlocutor sometimes joins. Asked what makes me want to get a Portuguese passport I own up about Brexit, but also am at pains to say how much I like Portugal. When this begs the obvious next question, I readily cite the weather and the wine, and after an artful pause for the interlocutor’s benefit, add ‘Oh, and the people, of course’. ‘Of course,’ he laughs. ‘But really?’, and casting my mind back to the garden this afternoon, I am able to say ‘Yes, I think I do’.
Looking at this unbelievable incident again, could anything look more like an attempted murder, à la House of Cards? It’s enough to make you wonder if the woman was an ex-spy and the jogger a Russian intelligence officer, who had come to Putney to see its world-famous bridge. Before you scoff at the notion, consider this: at the time, the hero of the piece was justly the bus-driver, whose astonishingly quick reflexes saved the woman’s head from being crushed, but look again and you will note the role also played by the woman’s own reflexes, presence of mind and steely abdominal muscles – just the sort of attributes you would expect in a secret agent.
[ii] … except in cases where the boy has the girl in a Lusitanian Headlock. This is a show of affection, or hold, in which the boy passes his arm right over the girl’s shoulders, squeezing her to him tightly so that his upper arm is at the back of her neck, his arm bent downwards at the elbow on the opposite side. Thus pinioned, the girl is introduced to the traditional model for Portuguese marriage. An alternative to this is the Belt-and-braces Straight-arm Cross-over, which I saw the other day for the first time. In this grip, the couple lovingly intertwine fingers in the normal way, with their arms straight down and touching, but the young male strengthens his hold by reaching across with his opposite hand and grasping the inside of the girl’s elbow. Anybody who would enjoy a musical exploration of other wrestling holds should not miss ‘The Crusher’ by the Cramps: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5gRD549UAo