Friends, I’m writing you from Oslo (as I did a few weeks ago). But I want to write to you about Portugal, where we’ve just had a National Review cruise. There is another NR cruise taking place there right now. We did back-to-backers. I was on the first one. Made some notes to share with you. Care to hear? Here is a little cruise journal — a cruise-in-Portugal journal.
‐A very, very short flight from New York to Lisbon. Six hours, ish. Just about the shortest flight you can take from the U.S. to the European continent, right? Kind of like flying across the country. Portugal clings to the western edge of Europe — is the western edge of Europe. And it’s five hours ahead of us — ahead of Eastern Standard Time, I mean. Like London. The time doesn’t shift to six hours until Spain.
You knew that, right? I didn’t.
‐I have written about Lisbon before, and will say just a little here: What a beautiful, different, and memorable city. Romantic, dreamy, multifaceted, elegant. A little down at the heels — like a beautiful old home that needs some restoration. But plenty lovely and enjoyable as is.
‐Some of us NR-niks discuss the rise and fall of nations, empires, and civilizations. Once upon a time, Portugal was a great, great maritime power. It bestrode the world like a colossus. Then it became a backwater, an impoverished sliver in a European corner, of no consequence at all. What a shudder-making lesson. What is the lesson, exactly?
‐Portuguese is an interesting language — a delight to listen to. An ess-aitchy language, with a lot of “ao” (as in “ow”). The Romance-language speakers among us comment that Portuguese is fairly easy to read but curiously hard to understand. Words are not pronounced as they are written (to me). Over the course of some days, I will sort of get the hang of it, however.
‐I see a lot of names that I am familiar with — classic Portuguese names. Soares. Sousa (as in John Philip!). Lugar (as in the Indiana senator — remember when he was always described as “Nixon’s favorite mayor”?). Pires. (There is a pianist named Maria João Pires — just about the only Portuguese musician, classical musician, of note.)
‐Can you name a Portuguese-American writer? Why, John Dos Passos, of course. Cool name. WFB — who knew him — once told me that his friends called him “Dos”: pronounced, not “Dose,” but “Doss.”
‐We cruise along the Douro River, into the Douro Valley. I have hardly ever seen such beauty. There are fields of wildflowers, endless fields, masses of flowers: red, purple, and yellow. The red ones are poppies. Not sure about the others. I love gardens as much as the next guy — more than the next guy — but these fields of wildflowers are better than anything man could plan. They are wondrous to walk in. And the birds sing like crazy, as though in appreciation and contentment.
Sorry to get la-di-da on you, but it’s true.
‐More la-di-da? Let’s talk about the trees: almond trees, cork trees, and olive trees. Millions of them, lined up along the hills like soldiers (at ease). I don’t know about you, but I had no idea Portugal was so beautiful. Wish I could stop writing and just show you.
‐We visit the town of Lamego, with its church atop a hill, and an amazing, zig-zaggy stairway leading up to it. Want to see a picture of our famed and adored publisher, Jack Fowler, on that stairway? The view is downward, away from the church and into town. Sorry for the poor quality (the photo, not Jack) — taken with my phone: here.
‐In town, we sit in the cathedral, listening to a narration. The guide mentions a painter, I believe, nicknamed “the Big Vasco.” Jack leans over to me and says, “I want that nickname.” So, to some of us, he’s the Big Vasco.
‐Who’s aboard — aboard the ship? Well, in addition to the NR faithful, we have some special guests — some special guest speakers. One is Charles Murray. Big brain, you might have heard. Awfully nice guy, too. Then we have Charles Kesler and Sally Pipes — possibly the smartest couple since Pierre and Marie Curie. Then we have Otto Reich, the diplomat and foreign-policy analyst. His full name is Otto Juan Reich. Funny name, huh?
His father was an Austrian Jew who escaped over the Alps from the Nazis. Wanting to fight the bastards, he joined the French Foreign Legion, serving in Africa. Oops. The French surrendered to the Germans, and now what was the young man, Walter, to do? He made his way to Havana — which means, appropriately enough, in this case, “Haven.” He had a contact, an address — a street address and an apartment number. He went to the wrong floor — right number, wrong floor. A man answered, and Walter was in luck: A son had just left, and Walter could have his room. In a year, he was married to a daughter. They had a family: Otto and his brother (I believe).
When the revolutionaries triumphed in 1959, the family went down to the National Hotel, to greet and hail them. But soon, Castro and his men showed what they really were. And Walter said, “We’re going. I’ve seen it before, and we’re going.” His wife’s family protested, “No, no, you’re being hasty. You’re merely spooked by your prior experience. Why don’t you wait and see how it develops?” Walter said, “No, people waited too long before, and we need to go now.” So the Reichs came to America.
Over the years, the Left has had fun with Otto’s name: Reich, as in “Third Reich.” Ha, ha! Suits that fascist, right? Of course, much of Otto’s paternal family was killed in the Holocaust. He is named after his grandfather. The Left can go hang, as far as I’m concerned. (I’ve said that a lot in Impromptus, I realize.) Otto is not a fascist and he is not a right-winger: He is a liberal democrat. Years ago, at an event in Florida, I believe, he made sure not to be in a position to shake the hand of Somoza. At another event, he made sure not to shake the hand of Pinochet. He loves freedom and hates tyranny — whether the tyranny’s particular flavor is black or red.
In a couple of discussions before our passengers, I traverse the world with Otto, who answers everything like the astute, principled, experienced, measured Reaganite he is. I hope he is in government again someday. He has great GWB stories to tell too, by the way.
Enough cruising, Portugal-ing, and journal-ing for now? See you tomorrow for the second and final part. Thanks much.