One of the gifts of travel is the perspective one gains from backing away from the automatized data of daily experience. Apart from the sharpening of individual perceptions, one also stands back from detail and glimpses some grander generalizations. There is always the potential for a trip to become a pilgrimage, for a sublime thought or two to drift effortless into consciousness. Many ordinary travelers are moved to ruminations on history, psychology, philosophy, and the spiritual while on the road that would have been unlikely at home.
So I found myself at the end of a more-than-ordinarily eventful day on the road thinking of that watered-down version of Ἀνάγκη we call luck. Chaucer and the authors of the Carmina Burana, when in a moralizing mood, loved depicting Dame Fortuna, mainly in a cautionary way, warning against complacency.  She was sometimes represented with a blindfold to indicate her capriciousness (though in modern times Justice is similarly figured to indicate the opposite). Like the momento mori she was employed to keep a damper on the temporary illusion that one has got the better of the world. Many of us in the twenty-first century have better odds against sudden trauma or illness, but we remain as subject to suffering and death as any of our ancestors.
The traveler enhances his vulnerability by the willful abandonment of some portion of that security. During the Middle Ages this meant accepting real risks – it was for good reason that merchants and pilgrims traveled in groups. Today we are safer in an airplane than in our cars. Even in remote regions, there is little chance of armed attackers. Vaccinations keep even many microbes at bay. Yet on the road the future is always more tinged with doubt, and the eyes of the visitor in a foreign place are wide open not merely to see strange sights but also to watch for pickpockets or for the proper stop in an unfamiliar bus system.
The hitchhiker, a sight almost defunct today but familiar to me and thousands of others in the past, is perhaps the purest form of this recreational casting oneself like a die at hazard. Standing by the side of the road, one cannot ignore one’s suspension in the moment. An easy transit to journey’s end may materialize at any moment or one may be stranded for hours in an inhospitable downpour. The host driver may be charming and amiable. He may buy his guest lunch and go off his route out of great-heartedness. Or he may glug whiskey from a nearly empty pint and accelerate to a hundred and twenty while muttering racist epithets. His rider knows he is in the hands of Lady Fortuna.
To a lesser extent the same thrill of uncertainty applies to all travel apart from the guided tour and the all-inclusive resort. I thought Patricia and I were going in class when we picked up a little Citroen from a rental agent in Lisbon. Having decided to take the smaller roads to avoid the monotony and tolls of the limited access autoroutes, we had prudently printed great sheaves of pages from Michelin’s website which seemed to give only too much detail about every kilometer of the trip. Who is more the master of his fate than the driver of a private car?
We set out for Nazaré in mid-morning, plenty of time to arrive there for a lunch of fresh seafood. We negotiated the initial turns fairly smoothly, though the Michelin programming seemed to be ignorant of certain one-way streets and no-left-turn signs, but before long we found ourselves in a wasteland of endless suburbs full of immense apartment developments and industrial zones. Every hundred yards a roundabout appeared, generally bearing no route numbers, but rather the name of the town to come, not infrequently a place of such little consequence as to be absent on our map (also a Michelin product). We must have paused a dozen times to puzzle over our map (when fully unfolded it approached the size of a queen-size bed) and our printed directions, generally finding no enlightenment and then importuning the locals to find our way. I was surprised to find so many Portuguese who knew no English, and more surprised to find that a passable acquaintance with Spanish and a five hour Pimsleur course allowed me to understand just enough to get back behind the wheel and start out again. After the seventh or eighth friendly informant had suggested that we would be better off heading onto the superhighway, we finally did.
In Nazaré we found Carnival and a most satisfying caldeirada. Looking out of our room which overlooked the beach and the stage for the festivities, we felt like grandees. But the day came on which we were to depart. There were no gathering clouds in the sky to set the mood, and we headed back to the big highway, blithe and breezy. After a short time, however, the electric system warning light on the dash illuminated. I would have to stop, but I had noticed that the rest areas seemed to include mechanics as indicated by an unmistakable wrench icon. Then another warning light appeared, this one unintelligible, its icon resembling a print by Arp. Finally I saw, in the increasingly troubled realm around the speedometer, a bright and insistent flashing red message STOP NOW, STOP NOW, STOP NOW.
In the event the rest area turned out to have no mechanic. Perhaps the coin-operated telephone was unusually expensive; perhaps I hadn’t used one in so long that the ordinary rate had risen without my noticing. When I eventually managed to reach an English-speaking agent in the car rental office, she seemed perplexed and asked me to call again after she had had an opportunity to consult with others. I was ultimately told to sit tight, that the Lisbon office was sending both a tow truck and a taxicab a hundred miles to retrieve me and the suffering Citroen, that we were then to return to the airport in Lisbon where we would receive a different car. Waiting for our angels of mercy was not the only painfully long delay – we sat with our cab driver in a loading zone in the arrivals area for over an hour (meter running) before the genial Paolo from whom we had first dealt suddenly appeared with apologies and explanations. And then we were on our way again, covering the same ground we had been over twice before, six hours lost, adrenaline wasted in fruitless anxiety, but heading down the road.
Arriving finally in Coimbra too late for lunch we checked into the funky old Hotel Avenida and began roaming the city.
Portuguese restaurants generally serve no dinner until after 7:30 or so, and, shortly before that hour, we set out looking for a likely place. While strolling the narrow lanes of the Azeitarias in the town’s Baixa district, we heard a guitarist playing with saudade mixed with a propulsive energy and singing with soulful passion. We paused outside the tiny hole-in-the-wall with no name, just decal letters labeling it a “casa de pasto,” not so different from the old signs in the USA that said “Eat,” though I believe that last word is linked etymologically to pasture. We could see that the musician was simply a customer. We entered, stood at the bar, and asked for glasses of red wine (€.20 each, maybe 26¢).
The proprietor, with unruly hair and teeth askew, leaned across the bar and whispered that the man was singing “revolutionary songs, all political songs.” We declared our sympathies as socialist trade unionists and the man to our left immediately paid for our wine. Though few of the party spoke much English, we learned that they had gathered specifically to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of José (Zeca) Afonso, the great progressive singer who began doing Coimbra-style fado, but became spokesperson against Salazar’s fascist regime and the colonial wars Portugal was waging in Africa. His “Canta Camarada” became a Communist anthem and his banned song “Grândola, Vila Morena” was broadcast to signal the beginning of the so-called Carnation Revolution in 1974.
The men, for the most part my age or a bit younger, were singing along with these tunes of their own youth, thinking back doubtless to a time when it appeared that left forces were approaching a decisive triumph. The country did shed its authoritarians and its colonies (the wars had been consuming forty percent of the country’s gross national product), but the more radical plans of land reform and redistribution of income were never realized. The party in the café had got on to Spanish Civil War songs and Cuban composer Carlos Puebla’s “Hasta Siempre” celebrating Che Guevara. Patricia stood up and the guitarist picked out the melody as she sang a rousing version of “Solidarity Forever.” We stayed for three hours.
To me, in this obscure spot in Europe, in a small group of otherwise ordinary aging men, we had encountered a saving remnant who made real the promise of the “Internationale,” the possibility of love/caritas/karuna, the apocalyptic upheaval (“We have been naught, we shall be all!”), and the vision of universal brother/sisterhood when “the international working class shall be the human race.”
Without opening oneself to the fortunes of the road we would have experienced neither the desolation of an anonymous superhighway roadside (that could have been anywhere in the developed world) nor the warmth and comradeship of our friends in the Casa de Pastos, celebrating a very local hero. Though I may have had difficulty in suppressing anxiety and frustration in the early afternoon, it is surely nothing but the angry face of the elation I welcomed later.
1. The lady is often shown with her wheel of fortune. The Svetasvatara Upanishad depicts the universe as a wheel: birth, death, rebirth.