“Just you wait!” this British-Indian friend of mine had said, rubbing his hands with glee, sometime after I had decided to go to Lisbon. “This love that you have for Portugal will disappear in some time; just like it did for us when we first went to England. All the romance will wash away, and you will dislike it so much!” He was right, this British-Indian; this starry-eyed love for Portugal, that so many Goans imbibe, almost with their mothers’ milk, did wash away. In its stead however, grew a different, perhaps more mature kind of affection. A sentiment like that born from a long marriage; we suffer a little, roll our eyes a lot, but at the end of it all, there is a desire for the object of our love, a passion for one we know so intimately. A love that burns not like the mercurial flames of young passion, but smolders like live coal, ever ready to burst into flame.
It was this kind of love, then, that burst into flame, not unlike that which burst in the heart of every other Portuguese friend, when we viewed Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations featuring Lisbon, our very own, beautiful city of light. Before we move on, we must place this episode in proper context. For a certain segment of food and travel aficionados Anthony Bourdain is God. He travels to the most exotic of locations, or exoticises the most banal of locations, discovering and creating culinary adventures, as he tries out local foods, from the barely braised rectum of a warthog in Namibia, to Spam in Hawaii. Added to these travels, is his presentation style. This granddaddy speaks about food and the whole business around it, like a young jock would talk about sex. This man oozes oomph, and you lap everything he lays out before you, and then you lie slavering at his feet, and beg for some more.
All too often, one watches Bourdain in locations one doesn’t know, but this time round, he was right here, and believe you me, there could not have been a slicker presentation of the city. Running through the length of the forty-five minute program like a cord that strings a set of pearls, was the music from the Portuguese duo band Dead Combo. Dark at times, unmistakably contemporary, and without doubt also something that could only have been midwifed by older forms of Portuguese music, the music was perhaps what brought the whole show together (forgive me Bourdain, but I still love you). It was a welcome break from Fado, something we all love, and a musical genre that was definitely featured, but for the love of God, there is a Lisbon beyond Fado and Dead Combo’s music captured that complex Lisboeta soul perfectly. And that soul is so, so, sexy!
Indeed, if there is one thing that Bourdain probably got wrong, was the presentation of Fado, where once more we were treated to these silly old clichés about the genre. About Fado being about the Portuguese propensity for saudade, wrongly interpreted as nostalgia for the past, and testifying to the Portuguese being a sentimental lot. Oddly enough, or perhaps as is the case with most marginalized peoples, because they didn’t want to contradict the all-knowing American, the Portuguese on the show played along with the whole one-sided interpretation.
As is often the case with Bourdain, there was no sissying about solely in fancy restaurants. On the contrary, the man did the entire gamut, from lunching with a fisherman and his wife (the principal feature of the menu, the to-die-for rice with octopus), to the simple no-nonsense pork-steak sandwich at a somewhat popular cervejaria (beer-house), to the fancy not so ‘straight ahead meal’ full of ‘sauce and garnish’ meals at more upmarket Lisbon restaurants run by new-ages chefs like José Avilez, HenriqueSa Pessoa and Ljubomir Stanisic. If you are asking me for my opinion, and I’ll treat you to it even if you aren’t, what I think is one of the finest places to eat sexed-up traditional Portuguese food up, the two Ideal restaurants, weren’t really featured. But then, you can’t win every time can you? And what is the voice of one anonymous Goan when pitted against Portuguese and Americans of renown?
The other guest that featured on the show was the economic crisis that Portugal is currently suffering. The varying Portuguese opinions of the crise (crisis) came through on the show, if it was the pessimistic hands-up-in-the-air attitude by the famed Portuguese author António Lobo Antunes; as something to be laughed at, in the opinion of comedian Zé Diogo Quintela; or the vaguely rightist opinion by the fadista Carminho who suggested seeing it as an opportunity! What most agreed on however was that tourism was critical to keeping Portugal’s economy. If they were right, and if the folks outside of Lisbon were as wowed by Bourdain’s presentation of Lisbon, then we have less to worry about, because that single episode possibly generated a good amount more interest in Portugal as a destination. For that Anthony Bourdain, thank you. But then, you didn’t have to try too hard did you. For surely, doesn’t Lisbon make it all too easy?
(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dtd 14 July 2012)