Friday, October 07, 2005

I of Fatima

That title is for all you Camper Van Beethoven fans. Which, of all the people reading this, means Lynn and myself.

"I'll be interested to hear (or read) your take on Portugal" my friend Bob wrote. "I hear mixed things."

Yeah, I can understand that. From the little I've seen of the country so far (Lisbon and Fatima), it is definitely a land of contrasts. The people are very nice, very kind. Lots of smiles, and when they correct your pronounciation of Portugese, it's in a helpful rather than frustrated manner. However, I've been cheated out of change her more than in the rest of Europe put together (and that includes living in London ten years ago). Yeah, yeah, it's my own fault for not being careful, but is the trolley driver so hard up he has to cheat people out of 30 cents, or is that his little "fuck you, tourist?"

It is a country that seems to be experiencing growing pains, pains that it sometime shares with its inhabitants. One of the poorest of all EU countries, it benefited the most by joining the European Union. It gained lots of loan money that had to be allocated by 2006. This is good, in that there┬║s some needed improvements being made that will ultimately benefit a lot of people. It's frustrating in the short term, in that basic services have changed so much in the country in the short term, and its hard to keep track. An elevator downtown, designed by the same man who designed the Eiffel Tower, currently has its baroque design hidden under scaffolding while it is renovated. They still charge over 2 euros to go up the elevator for the nice view of Lisbon, however.

I spent much of yesterday morning making my pilgrimage to Fatima. Fatima, for those who don´t know, is where the Virgin Mary is said to have made several appearances in 1917 to three children. She made three predictions, all of which have come true, although my translation of the second preditiction (Russia´s conversion to communism playing a part in the second world war) is one I would argue with. WWII was caused by Germany's slide into fascism and Japan´s colonial designs, not by Russia becoming communist. Other than that, I really have no arguments with the Virgin Mary, and would hope that if ever we do meet, this topic wouldn't come up.

When I was a kid, Mr. Jack, the annoying alcoholic who lived next door to my family for most of my childhood, gave us a book of weird phenomena published by Reader's Digest. (Mom - do you know the book I mean? Do we still have it?) The book covered the usual strange phenomena: Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, Aztec calendars...and the story of Fatima. Since then, it's been at the back of my mind to come here. I didn't envision that it would be such an ordeal. The bus station listed in my travel guide has since closed. No sign, no explanation. It's just gone. After searching for a tourist info kiosk, several of which that are listed on my Lisbon map (which I got from a tourist office in Lisbon, by the way) seem to have disappeared, I finally found one and got directions to the new bus and train station. I found the train station without trouble. The bus station, however, was half a block away and a little more difficult. Do you see what I mean about Portugal suffering from growing pains? Considering that some pilgrims have made the trek to Fatima on their knees, I know I shouldn't complain.

What is Fatima in 2005 like? Well, imagine several large parking lots that lead to a blinding white basilica. When the sun is out in Portugal, it is hot and can be blinding. The reflection off all the beautiful marble can make your head swim. The "several large parking lots" are there to hold the faithful, which can number in the tens of thousands at a time. Inside, the basilica is beautiful, white, clean, and despite its size, humble in scope. For something swarming with that many tourists and takes up that much space, it is a surprisingly peaceful spot.

Surrounding the basilica area, about a block away, the town of Fatima is undergoing a development phase not unlike Lisbon's. Think Sacred Suburban Sprawl, and you get the idea. There are shops and shopping malls, and lots of construction going on, mainly to build hotels to hold the faithful. It's tacky in the way that all suburban sprawl is tacky, yet not as vulgar as you might think.

Before going to the site, I stopped and had lunch in the Fatima shopping mall, which contains stores that sell religious things (no surprise) as well as stores that sell secular items (an underwear store, for example). The Fatima shopping mall has a movie theater. What sort of movies would be showing so close to where the Virgin Mary appeared, less than 100 years ago? "The Wedding Crashers" and "Bewitched," as it turns out.

Anyway, I stopped and had a salad and a small pizza. While I was eating, a group of 12 kids, all boys, obviously on a class trip, came in and took over the restaurant. They were your typical early-teen boys: loud and energetic, a little spastic and desperate to see how much pizza they could get for how little money. I have to say, however, they were better behaved than their American counterparts. After playing havoc with the waitress' attempts to install order, take orders, and deliver food, the boys broke out into spontaneous and genuine round of applause as thanks for the waitress' hard work when she handed over the last pizza slice. The waitress beamed.

I did see several people making their way to the basilica on their knees. A new structure is being built to accomodate the faithful. If the concrete base I saw is any indication, this building may rival the pyramids when it is finished. There´s a large area, think open barbeque pit, where you can place prayer candles. I bought a candle, lit it, placed it in the pit, got it out when the flame blew out, burned my arm just a little, lit the flame again, placed it back in the pit away from the wind.

The candle was in honor of my family and friends, so you're all covered.


Anonymous said...


I'm having a cup of tea on saturday morning catching up on "John's big adventure".

Love from Pennsyl-tucky,

Julie said...

For some reason Ive always had this dream of living in a house by the sea in either Portugal or Maine ( USA, not France ). Considering that all that change you're missing could add up, maybe I'll pick Maine.
PS Just took the boys to see Wallace and Grommit. We loved it ( not as much as The Wrong Trousers ). If Grommit were a man I'd marry him.

Iva said...

Hi, John,
Your aunties and your Uncle Gavin are here for a few days...the weather has changed drastically. It is quite chilly and the sun has disappeared (I think it is in Fatima.)
I hope that you are having a good time. I loved the segment of your blog about the kids in the restaurant. It just sounded neat, with the kids applauding the waitress.
I hope all is well with you. I miss you and I love you.

the hanged man said...

amy - welcome! how are things in Pennsyltucky?

Julie - I´m beginning to suspect that the Portugese just have trouble making change. It may not be nefarious at all, it may just be that they´re not used to the Euro...
Even so, Portugal has to be cheaper than Maine. And it´s closer to the Prado...

Mom -tell Aunts Juleann and Bobbi and Uncle Gavin and Mike I said hello...

Iva said...

Hi, John,
I just wanted to let you know that (one of) the packages you sent have arrived. It will be here till you come for it.

Carol said...

C'mon, be honest: how many others had to Google "Camper van Beethoven"?

Molly said...

Okay, why is it easier to find the grilled cheese or freezer door image (as in the greasy-spoon variety and/or the convenience store)of the Virgin Mary than to find a ride to Fatima? Hmmph. Oh, and fyi, at the Vatican it's said that anything sold in the City while the Pope is present is considered blessed (of course that includes beer bottle openers and car fresheners...)

the hanged man said...

Carol -
My initial response was going to be "that´s what happens when you go to law school instead of rocking out!" But then I realized that you have a law degree from one of the nation´s top schools, whereas who Camper Van Beethoven is.

So others don´t have to google: Camper Van Beethoven was a band from the 80´s. Their best album "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart" includes a song entitled "Eye of Fatima," which, by the way, has nothing to do with Fatima.

According to Mrs. Collins, all of CVB´s fans in the Baltimore/DC area are remarkably tall.

mrs. collins said...

I guess it might be possible that I am remarkably short.

Jumping ahead to the Bilboa post- it sounds amazing. Is the collection good or is the building really the thing?

Miss Stambaugh said...

I had a friend in Amherst named Fatima (from Portugal) and I always sang the CVB song to her. I know it's kind of lame - like singing the song Amy to someone named Amy.

Would also enjoy hearing about the Bilboa collection. Loved reading your emotional response to the architecture. That made me feel happy to be alive.

the hanged man said...

Julie said
"If Grommit were a man I´d marry him."

Yeah, but think of the mess Wallace would doubtlessly make of your wedding...

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