BootsnAll Travel Network

Why Portugal is Burning, Batalha, and a Proposition

“Portugal is on fire because of people who speak English,” according to my new Spanish friend, Alicia. “English is the language of greed. All the young Spanish, they don´t want to learn Portuguese. There is no money in learning Portuguese. They want to learn English.” There are large forest fires north of where I am now, and in the direction I´m headed tomorrow. Alicia, who is going home today because of the heat, attributes the fires and the heat to global warming. Pollution. Greed on the parts of the wealthiest and most voracious countries. It is a sign of her trust that she was willing to say this, in our parting conversation, to a born English-speaker. She knew I would not disagree, would not defend. It also helps me to understand why she doesn´t speak a word of English. It´s a moral thing with her, although she didn´t say as much. It goes without saying that she doesn´t blame all English speakers. It´s pointless to say that greed occurs everywhere. The point is that the wealthiest countries are doing, and have done, the most damage. The heat, the forest fires, acid rain, the destruction of the ozone: greed. And speaking of acid rain, I made it to Batalha yesterday.

Batalha is another of Portugal´s great monasteries. One violent man asked God to help him defeat other violent men, and he succeeded in killing more people than the other guy, so he built this enormous stone monument to violence and to God: “Batalha,” battle. It houses the grave of the Unknown Portuguese Soldier of WWI, protected by a contingent of Portuguese soldiers with machine guns. I happened to be there as they were changing the guard and stomping about with their boots, gloves, berets, and machine guns. Batalha also houses the tomb of the English Queen of the Portuguese King, and their marriage created a political alliance between England and Portugal which, according to the literature at the monastery, has lasted longer than any other alliance in the world. Alicia´s words rang in my ears as I circumambulated the cloister where the monks used to pray. Batalha is completely different from the simple grandeur of Alcobaca. It is more rococo than gothic, and yet spectacular in its excess. Stained glass windows cast intense colors over the pale stone, stone carved to look like ropes, leaves, flowers, draperies, human faces, animals, and anything but stone. Elaborate curlicues and flourishes, symbols, and artifice on top of artifice. But someone in the last forty or so years decided to plant an expressway about fifty yards from the monastery, and now the pale stone is dripping gray, mottled with black, and the ancient stone is being eaten away by the same poisons that take our lungs, although since we are more ephemeral than stone, it is less obvious with us.

When I got back to the hostel, a young Frenchman was waiting with a fantastic proposition which he presented to me in French, and which, for the most part, I understood. He is one of the leaders of the musicians, who range in age from 12 to 27, and who are in Leiria for a two-week workshop with a great French maestro. One of the pieces the maestro has chosen for them to do is a rarely-produced opera by Mozart called (in English) The Theatre Director. It is unusual in that it contains a fairly extensive play, in spoken words, in the middle of the opera. The opera (and the play) is in German. Half the musicians are Portuguese, and the other half are French. The Maestro is French. Everything is going well, says my propositioner, but the musicians are not actors, of course, and the play is, in his words, “catastrophe”. So he heard that I am a professor of theatre, and he wondered if I could direct the play for them. I listened, mused, and said, in my broken French, “But the tongue and the languages of which I do not speak well are a big problem.” No, no, he insisted. He had a French translation of the play which I could study, and he assumed, because I pretty much understood him, that I could work with the French version. “And I am departing on Wednesday morning.” Ah, he said, that would be a problem. Perhaps I would consider to stay longer? “How will the actors deal with the German script?” I asked. “Pas de probleme. Nous avons un expert avec Allemagne,” and this expert is making a Portuguese translation of the script. Hm. “OK,” I said, “let me the French script to read, and we will to talk in the morning.” Yes, he was very pleased, and we could discuss the plans at breakfast, and I could go with them to rehearsal at 9:15 and meet the maestro, who, of course, would have to approve of the inclusion of me in the plan. Hm. I took the book, spent hours reading the script (a terrible play: Mozart wrote it for a competition with Salieri which Mozart lost, and I can see why), and then tossed and agonized all night. I lay in bed listening to the clock chime four, five, six a.m., and finally I said, deeply inside myself, NO. What madness is this? Here I am on my first vacation in 12 years, and I am offered the glorious opportunity of working in two languages I barely speak and one I don´t speak at all, to create a difficult, badly-written play with musicians who know nothing about theatre. In the shortest time possible. And here´s the coup de grace: the play is entitled THE THEATRE DIRECTOR, and it occurred to the maestro to get a German expert to translate it into Portuguese, but it did not occur to him or anyone else to get A THEATRE DIRECTOR to help the students put the play together! So they want to pick up some theatre professor they meet in a youth hostel and foist this job onto her? Me? This is not my catastrophe. This is not my problem. Why on earth would I take this on? And why, I asked myself around 5 a.m., did I even CONSIDER this and lose a night´s sleep over it. Answer: because it is my nature to say yes. But this time….

I was waiting for the Frenchman when he arrived in the back garden before breakfast, and I had prepared my wonderful speech, which began, “Nous avons besoin de parler” (We need to talk). Oh, I was splendid. I got out of it. And what´s even more wonderful, it is a cooler day than any I´ve experienced so far, it might even rain and help the people who are fighting the forest fires, and I am grinning for all I´m worth. On with my vacation! (Although, OK, I did agree to “make some conversations tonight in the garden” where, oddly enough, there is a little theatre space–in the back garden of the youth hostel, a small stage and some seats, and, “maybe,” I said in three languages, I can do a little something to help them before I leave in the morning.)

I don´t know when I will find another internet place. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps not. When I find one, I´ll blog in. Until then, be well, stay out of forest fires, and trust that I will do the same.


One response to “Why Portugal is Burning, Batalha, and a Proposition”

  1. Pam Speights says:

    I do hope you have a camera. I’d love to see the beautiful stain glass and plush landscape. Safe travels!

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